“An unnecessary risk? Montgomery Co.’s vaccine mandate continues debate



Several police officers and local union officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, testified before county council on Tuesday in categorical opposition to a proposed COVID-19 vaccine mandate for county employees, arguing the proposal violates their personal rights and could lead to staff shortages.

Several police officers and local union officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, testified before county council on Tuesday in categorical opposition to a proposed COVID-19 vaccine mandate for county employees, arguing the proposal violates their personal rights and could lead to staff shortages.

No decision was taken during the public hearing. The next step is a committee working session scheduled for November 22.

The proposed vaccination mandate – which would no longer allow county employees to provide negative weekly COVID-19 test results instead of getting vaccinated – has also divided county leaders.

The measure is sponsored by council members Hans Riemer, Will Jawando and Gabe Albornoz, but has come under heavy criticism from county executive Marc Elrich, who said he feared a “blackout” in critical public safety functions if employees were expelled by the warrant.

Appearing at the council hearing on Tuesday to represent the Elrich administration, Deputy Chief Executive Officer Earl Stoddard said the county executive in principle supports vaccination mandates, but is “deeply concerned that the bill as drafted will create critical challenges “in the staffing of public safety agencies, such as the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Department, the County Police Department and the County Corrections Department.

Late last month, Elrich ordered a risk assessment of county staffing levels to investigate the potential impact of the vaccine’s mandate if a significant number of employees quit, take early retirement or are made redundant.

“The main takeaway is that even if a warrant results in 95% or more compliance, as I suspect, 3-5% cuts to our public safety programs would be an unsustainable level that would result in service reductions. Said Stoddard. said, adding that due to the time it takes to recruit and train first responders and other public safety workers, the impact could be long lasting.

In another example from the report, Stoddard told board members that if the fire and rescue service lost just 2% of its workforce – around 25 members – the service would have to cut services.

“When I hear that from the fire chief, it’s important to me,” Stoddard said.

He added: “The county executive believes that any reduction in staff that reduces public safety coverage puts our residents at unnecessary risk and should be avoided.”

Council Chairman Tom Hucker noted that staffing issues have persisted in public safety agencies for years and that Elrich “shouldn’t just hide behind this problem as if it were a whole new problem “.

Council members also posed tough questions to Stoddard about the state of the county’s plans to conduct regular testing on unvaccinated county workers.

Under a Health Council regulation approved by the council in August, the county executive was expected to submit a comprehensive vaccination and testing plan for the county’s workforce by August 20.

The plan has still not been provided.

“How can we expect the public to comply with our Board of Health orders and insist that our employees comply with many Board of Health orders when your own administration does not comply with an order? which we passed two and a half months ago, “Hucker said.” Are you comfortable with the signal this sends to the public? “

Stoddard said he agreed that the Elrich administration should have done a better job providing the plan to the board, but said it took a while to figure out how many employees decided not to be vaccinated and, therefore, the number of tests that would be required on a regular basis as well as a “logistically feasible” way of testing workers.

Hucker replied, “We have an administration that has just chosen not to comply with the sanitary order, and we send hundreds of firefighters and police to the frontlines every day to interact with the public … no reason you can’t. Just send test kits to every fire station and every police station in the county. “

Stoddard has promised the county will provide lawmakers with the test plan by the end of the week.

The vaccination mandate the county council is considering would require county workers to be vaccinated with only authorized medical exemptions. The legislation would exempt vaccine requirements from collective bargaining with employee unions and allow disciplinary action up to and including dismissal for employees who fail to comply.

Overall, 80% of the county’s nearly 9,500 employees report being fully or partially vaccinated. But an additional 13% have not reported their vaccination status and 8% say they are not vaccinated.

In some departments, there are even higher proportions of unvaccinated employees – or employees who refuse to provide their status.

Within the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Department, for example, just under 64% of the agency’s approximately 1,400 employees report being at least partially vaccinated, while more than 30% have not. reported their status. About 5% of firefighters and rescuers said they were not vaccinated.

In the police department, 80% of the nearly 1,900 members are at least partially vaccinated. Another 13% of police employees did not report their status, and more than 6% said they were not vaccinated.

During the public testimony portion of the hearing, several Montgomery County police officers, as well as local union officials, shared their views.

Lee Holland, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, which represents 1,500 members, highlighted long-standing recruitment and retention issues in the department and claimed that a FOP survey of members indicated that until 300 officers “plan to leave” if the bill is passed.

“These numbers are real and scare me as a county resident and should scare everyone,” Holland said.

Jeffrey Buddle, of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 1664, said the fire and rescue service was already “at a breaking point” in terms of personnel.

Between June and October, there were 1,549 involuntary overtime hours to keep the units in service compared to a total of 420 hours for the whole of 2019.

The worst-case scenario of the department estimates that around 100 career firefighters could be separated from the workforce because of the vaccination mandate, which Buddle said “would plunge Montgomery County into a public safety crisis.”

Amy Millar of UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO said the union is “unequivocally pro-vaccination” but the proposal is “an attack on our basic collective bargaining rights”.

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