As the latest wave of COVID-19 infections has slowed, a vaccination mandate more stringent than those issued by Contra Costa Health Services (CCHS) took full effect in the county last week.
The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors issued a mandate on Aug. 27 requiring all county employees to prove they have received both COVID-19 vaccination shots by Oct. 4. The mandate has been referred to as a ‘vaccinate or terminate’ policy because, with few exceptions, employees were warned that failure to comply with the policy could result in disciplinary actions up to and including termination.
“The COVID-19 pandemic remains a public emergency in our county, and we know that the most effective tool we have for reducing transmissions and hospitalizations – and saving lives – is vaccination,” said Diane Burgis, Contra Costa County District 3 Supervisor. “Contra Costa residents count on our employees every day for vital services, including people who are at high risk of serious illness if infected by COVID-19. Many of our employees frequently work in settings with an elevated risk of exposure to the virus. Given those facts, it is clear why the county has a mandatory vaccination policy for employees. It protects our workers and the residents they serve from a deadly but highly preventable disease, advances our mission to control the spread of COVID-19 in our community, and provides assurance to the public that Contra Costa County is doing all it can to keep everyone safe and healthy.”
Just two weeks prior to the supervisors’ mandate, CCHS issued a health order requiring law enforcement officers, non-emergency ambulance crews, firefighters and emergency medical personnel who work in or may respond to emergency calls at high-risk facilities such as hospitals, jails, nursing and congregate care facilities to either get vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID-19 testing. That order took effect Sept. 17.
Unlike the CCHS order, the supervisors’ mandate made no general accommodation for weekly testing as an alternative to receiving the vaccine. Only those who qualified for an exemption on either medical or religious grounds could opt for testing instead of receiving the vaccination. That distinction caused considerable consternation, particularly among the ranks of the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District (Con Fire).
“We support and have encouraged all of our members to get vaccinated,” said Vince Wells, president of the United Professional Firefighters of Contra Costa County Local 1230. “But where we stop short is making it mandatory without a testing option. When the county health officer put out his health order, it impacted all first responders in the county. That particular policy allowed for weekly testing for those that did not choose to be vaccinated. We wanted to stay under that order as one of the fire agencies with the county and be treated the same as the rest of the first responders. The board didn’t support that position, and it imposed the ‘vaccinate or terminate’ policy.”
Wells said that Con Fire has followed strict protocols to protect firefighters and patients against the COVID-19 that include temperature checks, face mask use, quarantining and contact tracing. That system, he said, was working well as evidenced by low infection rates among the employees of the fire district. Given that, the impact of the mandate is still resonating among firefighters.
“Now it’s just morale,” Wells said. “People are definitely still angry. Time will tell where we end, but we had a significant number of firefighters who were opposed to this.”
One Con Fire employee refused the vaccination and is facing termination, said Steve Hill, Con Fire public information officer. About 100 employees requested exemptions, and he believes they were all granted. Another 90 employees were recently vaccinated.
“One can assume that’s because of the mandate,” Hill said. “That’s an assumption, but it seems like a fairly valid one. The impact on us is negligible, and that’s good news. I’ll freely admit, we were a little concerned about how it would play out, but it’s played out pretty well.”
The East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) is an independent special district, and its firefighters and staff are not employees of the county. As such, they are not bound by the supervisors’ mandate. ECCFPD Fire Chief Brian Helmick said the district is adhering to the CCHS health order of Aug. 13 that requires vaccination or weekly testing at the discretion of the employee. The recently approved consolidation between Con Fire and the ECCFPD has not yet impacted the employment status of the ECCFPD staff.
Over the last two weeks, CCHS reports a 35.5% decrease in active COVID-19 cases in the county. There are currently 69 patients hospitalized in the county with the disease, down from a summer peak of 227 patients hospitalized on Aug. 24. The infection in unvaccinated residents is roughly seven times higher than the infection rate of vaccinated residents, statistics show.
“It is no accident that transmission is slowing in Contra Costa County,” said Dr. Chris Farnitano, Contra Costa County health officer. “Public health interventions, including the masking requirement, are working. We believe that health orders, along with vaccination, outreach and education are all adding layers of protection against COVID-19 in our community – and saving lives.”