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Opinion A vaccine mandate for Montgomery County employees isn’t that simple

Ghattas Haddad, left, watches as Capt. Peter Dugan, right, with the Montgomery county Division of Fire and Rescue services, prepares a Moderna shot at Charter House in Silver Spring in March. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Marc Elrich, a Democrat, is the Montgomery County executive.

There has been a lot of confusion recently about my position on proposed Montgomery County Council legislation that would require all county employees to be vaccinated or be terminated. I want to be extremely clear about my position on this proposal.

First, I believe all county employees — and all residents — who can be vaccinated should be vaccinated. I believe vaccine mandates can work and that a national mandate tied to employment would be the most effective means of preventing the unvaccinated from shopping for employers who don’t require vaccinations. Now, the federal mandate for employers with more than 100 employees is “vax or test,” and all federal employees are required to be vaccinated. The pain, the suffering and the loss of life from this pandemic would be greatly reduced if we were all vaccinated.

Second, I never said I opposed a vaccine mandate of county employees, and, in theory, I’d welcome one, along with requiring vaccinations to be in restaurants and other crowded spaces where people gather without masks. However, we are not running a bookstore or a restaurant where firing staff members who aren’t vaccinated might result in slower customer service, which would be inconvenient. Delays to necessary services such as police, fire and rescue and insufficient staffing in our jail are more than inconvenient, they impact lives and livelihood.

My first reaction to the proposal, before I heard a word from the unions, was to ask staff about potential service impacts because the number of unvaccinated employees is concentrated in a few critical departments. Before we issue a blanket mandate with prescriptive discipline, we must be clear-eyed about the implications for public safety. That’s why these departments are conducting a realistic scenario-based assessment of how potential personnel loses would affect their ability to effectively deliver these services.

Opinion: Montgomery County’s vaccine-or-test policy has run its course. A real mandate is needed.

If, for example, the loss of paramedics were to result in delays in ambulances arriving, we would be putting lives at risk — waiting for a burger is one thing, waiting for an ambulance is quite another. More than 80 percent of the calls run by the fire and rescue service are health related. Before I can support the mandate as proposed, I want to be sure that it will not jeopardize the health and safety of our residents.

Similarly, if our jail were inadequately staffed, we would be putting both the people in the jail and our employees at risk. The service-impacts analysis is essential to judging the risks and benefits of this vaccine mandate, and proposing a mandate without this assessment was premature.

Proposing the mandate, as council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large) did, with no consultation with anyone responsible for delivering critical services is irresponsible. Not knowing how many employees we can lose before ambulances fail to meet response-time targets or not knowing how guards will control a jail if they lose significant staff poses serious potential risks. I know mandates can work to increase vaccination rates, but 100 percent compliance is highly unlikely. We should know where staff losses pose a danger. As it has been throughout the pandemic, minimizing deaths is of utmost important to me; that’s why I support vaccine passports.

We are likely talking about no more than a 1,000 county employees who remain unvaccinated out of the more than 200,000 residents who are not yet vaccinated. Because of the other measures my administration has implemented — including deploying personal protective equipment, distancing rules, safety barriers and ventilation improvements in county facilities — county employees, vaccinated or not, pose far less risk than more common daily interactions in retail, restaurant or fitness centers throughout the county. And to be clear, these same employees have been responding throughout the 20 months of this pandemic to make Montgomery County one of the safest places in the entire country. They responded when we did not have masks, protective equipment, tests or vaccines. They did their jobs to keep us safe.

The consequences of this mandate would not be short-lived: Police, fire and rescue employees would take six months or more to replace. In the interim, what do I tell the person whose house fire could not be contained because we did not have adequate staff? Would that person be at a grave risk from an unvaccinated firefighter wearing an N95 mask fighting a fire? These are legitimate questions that need to be addressed before legislating. And they are not instantly answered, which is why none of our neighboring jurisdictions has yet issued an employee mandate.

I expect my staff to provide a realistic consequence analysis later this week, and we will share it with the community. I want to be sure that the cure isn’t worse than the disease. At that point, we will have a full understanding of our circumstances and the best way forward.

Regardless of how upset anyone is about the refusal of people to get vaccinated, and I am really angry, as I’ve made pretty clear, anger can’t be allowed to cloud our thinking of how best to manage the situation. I genuinely wish that the sponsors of this legislation would have come to me to discuss this in greater detail. We could have conducted this critical analysis before the drafting of the proposed mandate and accompanying discipline. I believe this path would have shown greater respect for the employees who have been responding admirably for the past 20 months. That didn’t happen; Riemer chose showmanship over leadership.

As I have done throughout the pandemic, I will lead using science and data as my guide to ensure the best possible outcome for our residents and employees.