Per county data, about 80 percent of its 9,000-plus employees reported being partially or fully vaccinated as of Tuesday. The remaining 8 percent of workers who have not been vaccinated and 13 percent who have not reported their vaccination status include dozens of firefighters, more than half the nurses at the county’s correctional facilities and 205 police officers on patrol, according to a government report submitted to lawmakers Monday night.
County Executive Marc Elrich (D) is not opposed to a vaccine mandate in principle, but has concerns about the impact on public safety, said assistant chief administrative officer Earl Stoddard. Existing vacancies and shortages have left the staffing situation precarious at some of the departments with the lowest vaccination rates, including police, fire and rescue services and correction and rehabilitation, Stoddard added.
“Even if the bill results in a 95 percent compliance, which I think it will, a 3 to 5 percent reduction in public safety would be unsustainable,” he testified.
Earlier in the day, Stoddard received sharp criticism from lawmakers after disclosing that the county has not been enforcing regular coronavirus testing for firefighters who have yet to be vaccinated — a requirement for all county employees that the council enacted in August. Stoddard said it has been difficult to arrange regular PCR testing at fire stations, and department leaders have not asked workers to procure testing on their own.
“It’s hard to understand why, given that [tests] are so widely available, we’re somehow not able to test our own employees,” said Council President Tom Hucker (D-District 5). Council member Craig Rice (D-District 2) added that it’s reasonable for the council to consider a vaccination mandate if the “vaccinate-or-test” policy wasn’t being properly implemented.
Nationwide, discussions over how to boost vaccination rates have gotten increasingly contentious.
Celebrities, athletes and conservative pundits have doubled down on their decisions not to get vaccinated even as public health experts emphasize the safety of the shots. Hospital systems, airlines and other large employers are firing workers for failing to abide by vaccine requirements. And last week, President Biden touted the effectiveness of mandates, calling them “tough medicine” necessary for the country to emerge from the pandemic.
In Montgomery, the first jurisdiction in the D.C. region to consider a mandate for all county government workers, public debate is coinciding with the start of a competitive election season. Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large), who is co-sponsoring the vaccine mandate bill, is running for county executive against Elrich, a close ally of the county’s unions. Hucker has also said he is weighing a bid for the top electoral post next year.
While a handful of individual county employees expressed opposition to the coronavirus vaccines Tuesday, union leaders said they are not anti-vaccination and have been urging staff to get their shots. The unions oppose the mandate as an overreach of the council’s authority and a violation of the unions’ collective bargaining rights, representatives said.
In a recent county government report obtained by The Washington Post, officials from the fire department said the mandate could lead to the loss of 100 uniformed employees and 100 volunteer service providers, causing a disruption to services that would be “immediate and devastating.” The Department of Correction and Rehabilitation could lose 128 employees who have not been vaccinated or not disclosed their vaccination status. And the police department might have to let go of up to 283 sworn officers and 112 professional staff.
Riemer said he thinks it’s unlikely the county would lose so many workers, calling the estimates a “scare tactic.”
“What we’re seeing in hospitals and other large employers is that almost everyone complies with the vaccination requirement when it’s put into place,” he said in an interview ahead of the public hearing. “Why would it be different here?”
The council’s Health and Human Services Committee is scheduled to continue discussion of the vaccine mandate on Nov. 22.