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Supervisors opt to not require vaccine for county employees

Southampton County supervisors discussed, on Aug. 24, the possibility of requiring county employees to either obtain the COVID-19 vaccine or pay for their own weekly COVID tests, and while varying opinions were expressed, supervisors ultimately chose not to institute a requirement.

Michael Johnson

Since this discussion and decision, the Biden administration announced that all employers with 100+ employees must either mandate vaccines or test weekly, a requirement that will be enacted through a forthcoming rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that carries penalties of $14,000 per violation.

Southampton County Administrator Michael Johnson said that as of Sept. 13, it was unclear whether the Biden administration’s new requirement will impact the board’s decision.

“I’m hopeful that the Emergency Temporary Standard, to be drafted by OSHA, will provide us with the clarification and detail that we need in determining how President (Joe) Biden’s executive order affects our organization,” Johnson said.

Once OSHA issues the ETS, court challenges will likely follow that may impact OSHA’s ability to enforce it, Johnson added.

“If and when an ETS is finalized and in effect, because Virginia is one of 21 states with its own OSHA-approved occupational safety and health plan, the commonwealth will choose between adopting OSHA’s ETS or its own measures that are ‘at least as effective as’ the new federal standard,” Johnson stated. “Until the process plays out and it’s clear how the order applies to us, we’ll remain in a holding pattern given the direction of the board on Aug 24.”

Setting up the Aug. 24 discussion, Johnson stated in a briefing within that board meeting packet, “As you’re aware, Gov. (Ralph) Northam announced earlier this month that state employees will be required to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 1 or be tested weekly. In his press release, he encouraged localities and private employers to do the same.

“In response to the governor’s announcement, I’ve heard from two members of the board encouraging some discussion of this, particularly as it may relate to the county’s personnel policies, at your Aug. 24 meeting.”

He continued by noting that since that time, the cities of Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk and Williamsburg have announced that they are joining together to implement weekly testing of their municipal employees unless they are fully vaccinated beginning Oct. 1.

“While protection of county employees is certainly a noble objective, it’s important to recognize some significant issues given our organizational structure,” Johnson stated.

He outlined these issues in the following three written points:

  • The county’s adopted Personnel Policies and Procedures only apply to departments under the county administrator’s direction and supervision; they do not apply to employees of constitutional officers. Of the 148 county employees, 104 are employees of constitutional officers while the remaining 40 work in departments that report to the county administrator. Accordingly, any policy enacted by the board would apply to less than 30% of the county workforce;
  • Administration of weekly reporting and tracking of non-vaccinated employees will require a significant amount of staff time – with no dedicated human resources staff, there is simply no one to administer such a program;
  • If the board were to adopt such a policy, an employee’s failure to follow it would be considered insubordination. Disciplinary actions for insubordination are progressive, starting first with a verbal reprimand, followed by a written reprimand, then suspension and, finally, termination. This could potentially add significant disciplinary work for department heads and potentially lead to service interruptions in the event of terminations.

At the Aug. 24 meeting, Johnson said, “So it’s for those reasons that I have suggested that it may not be a good idea for you all to adopt such a policy, but since I heard from two board members that you wanted to discuss it, I thought it was important to put it out there for your consideration.”

Lynda T. Updike

Again mentioning the governor’s policy affecting state employees, Johnson noted that the discussion facing the Board of Supervisors “is whether or not you want to adopt any kind of policy that would be similar for county employees.”

Newsoms District Supervisor Lynda T. Updike asked how much the cost would be to the county to test employees who declined to receive the vaccine.

“If this board were to choose to require those 40 county employees to either be vaccinated or to be tested, the cost of that testing would be borne by the employee,” Johnson said. “It would be their responsibility.”

William Hart Gillette

Capron District Supervisor and Board Vice Chair William Hart Gillette said, “I’m not in favor of mandating the vaccine shot or the testing. I think we’ve got competent individuals who can make up their own minds, and there’s an awful lot of data out there today that would certainly bring a lot of these types of actions into question, and I think we need to leave it up to employees to decide for themselves rather than me deciding for them.”

Robert T. White

“Yeah, I feel the same way,” Franklin District Supervisor Robert White said. “I think it should be left up to the individual. Strongly recommend it, but if they don’t want to do it, you shouldn’t make them do it. You’d lose a lot of employees, I know everybody would if you had to.”

Berlin/Ivor District Supervisor Christopher D. Cornwell Sr. echoed the preceding sentiments.

Christopher D. Cornwell Sr.

“We’re the governing body, not the health care provider,” he said. “It’s a decision that should be made personally between oneself and their doctor, so I personally would not be in favor of any type of requirement for any employees to disclose their vaccination status or testing status or require them to actually even receive the vaccine.”

Boykins District Supervisor Carl J. Faison said, “With the complications that this seems to impose on us, I don’t think we can adopt that policy, but I will express my real concern, though. I have an 18-month-old grandson in my house, and I’m very concerned about

Carl J. Faison

taking (COVID-19) back to him. So I certainly encourage everybody and I wish we could do everything we can to maybe somehow get control of this thing, because it’s far more serious than I think a lot of people take.”

Jerusalem District Supervisor and Board Chair Dr. Alan W. Edwards said, “If you’re vaccinated, you’re a lot less contagious and able to spread (the virus) than if you’re not vaccinated.”

He indicated that vaccinated people who contract COVID-19 are carrying a low viral load.

Alan W. Edwards

“By viral load, we mean there’s some types of flu that you’ll have to have a million viral particles you inhale or whatever, and there’s some that take 100,000,” he said. “So if you’re vaccinated, you have a lot lower viral load, and you’re not able to spread it as much.

“But I agree also — I don’t like mandates telling people they have to do things like this,” he added. 

Reflecting more on COVID-19, Edwards said, “We do know some long-term side effects of the virus infection itself, and it seems like as time passes, we see more and more. We’ve seen heart problems, we’ve seen lung problems, we’ve seen brain problems. So they’re real problems. 

“We don’t know about the vaccine,” he continued. “I would assume the way other things have gone in this area that the problems with the vaccine are probably a lot less than getting the disease.”

But returning to the possibility the board was considering, Edwards again said, “I don’t feel like forcing somebody to get the vaccination.”

Faison said, “The unfortunate thing about this is, when people aren’t tested, aren’t vaccinated and spread the virus, I see that as a threat to the whole community. But I can understand not wanting to force people to do it, I just don’t know. It’s just a frightening thing to me.”

“It’s a Catch-22,” Edwards said. “You’ve got two opposing things there with no out, with no resolution, the way I see it. I think everybody should be vaccinated, it’s my personal feeling, but again, I also don’t feel that government should force everybody to get vaccinated.”

Cornwell said he would be in favor of taking no further action, Updike agreed with him, and White said, “I’m with you,” but Faison indicated he was conflicted.

“I’m mixed on that,” Faison said, “but I’ll go along with everybody else.”

Drewryville District Supervisor Dallas O. Jones was attending the Aug. 24 meeting remotely and did not participate in the COVID-19 vaccine/testing mandate discussion.