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56 Pima County staffers lose jobs for refusing to follow COVID shot mandate

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56 Pima County staffers lose jobs for refusing to follow COVID shot mandate

Just 16 regular full-time gov't employees out of 2,000 would not comply with vaccination policy

  • Paul Ingram/

Pima County has terminated 56 employees who refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and instead chose to flout a policy for local government staffers who work with vulnerable people, officials said Monday evening. 

This includes 17 workers in the Pima County Sheriff's Department, and is far fewer than earlier tallies of hundreds of non-compliant county workers who faced dismissal under the shot mandate.

Just 16 regular full-time employees out of a total of 2,048 county staffers covered by the public health policy were let go, according to Pima County records.

In a memo to the Board of Supervisors, Acting County Administrator Jan Lesher wrote that she was "pleased to report that the overwhelming majority of employees identified as working with vulnerable populations provided proof of vaccination" by the Dec. 31 deadline. 

"I’m sad to report that some county employees chose not to be vaccinated or failed to receive an exemption, and were dismissed from county employment," Lesher said.

In the Sheriff's Department, just 12 regular classified employees were let go under the policy, along with 2 "intermittent" workers and 3 recently hired staffers who had not yet completed their probationary periods.

In all other county departments, a total of 3 full-time classified staffers and 1 full-time unclassified employee were let go under the policy. Another 33 part-time intermittent employees — mostly seasonal workers — and 2 staffers still in their probationary periods also lost their jobs for not complying with the mandate.

In October, the supervisors voted 4-1 to require employees who work with children or the elderly, as well as corrections officers in the Pima County jail and juvenile detention facility, to get vaccinated before New Year's Day. In a memo to the board just before the deadline, Lesher wrote that out the county's 6,240 employees, nearly 87 percent, or 5,455 are vaccinated against COVID-19.

Lesher wrote that out of 2,048 employees who work with vulnerable people, 1,883 were fully vaccinated by the deadline, or around 92 percent. Another 23 employees received exemptions "in accordance with state and federal laws," she said. They have until January 30 to find a new position in the county, and cannot be in their current workplaces, Lesher said.

Lesher said that 46 employees received their first dose of the vaccine before the Dec. 31 deadline. While this runs past the deadline of Jan. 1, 2022 set by the Board of Supervisors, Lesher wrote that the employees can have until the third week of January to complete their vaccinations. 

Around 28 employees who had not gotten their shots against COVID-19 were reassigned to other duties. A dozen PCSD employees chose to retire rather than submit proof that they've been vaccinated, county spokesman Mark Evans said.

The results are similar to the city of Tucson, which instituted its own vaccination mandate last year. By Dec. 2 just 11 full-time city employees had refused vaccinations, along with 28 temporary workers. Dozens of other workers sought, and received, exemptions. 

While vaccinations became widely available last year, vaccination mandates have remained controversial. Over the summer, the Arizona state legislature along with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey attempted to undermine mandates with a state law blocking them, but that law was undone by a Maricopa County Superior Court judge. Similarly, an attempt by the Biden administration to require vaccinations for companies with over 100 employees hit the skids when several state attorneys general—including Arizona AG Mark Brnovich—filed challenges. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the Biden administration's mandate soon.

Earlier tallies showed 400-plus county workers refusing shots

In December, Lesher said there were 427 county workers who were covered by the policy and remained unvaccinated, leading officials to forecast that hundreds of local government workers could be fired for refusing their shots, however, by last week officials said that number had dwindled to about 50 employees. 

"So we've had considerable progress moving in that area," Lesher said last week. "We've been doing a very good job at making sure that our population stays safe," she added.

While numbers released by county administration in late 2021 made it appear that hundreds of corrections officers and sergeants at PCSD's jail had not gotten their shots, Sheriff Chris Nanos told the Tucson Sentinel that his own numbers showed most staffers were complying with the policy. In December, Nanos said that just 24 of his officers were not vaccinated, and would not seek to get their shots before the deadline. He ascribed the difference to a "lag in paperwork" because of the holidays. 

According to Lesher's memo Monday evening, the Sheriff's Department will lose 17 employees in total. This includes 12 full-time classified employees, 2 employees who were intermittent, and 3 more were full-time probationary employees.

Deputies who work outside the jail are not covered by the shot requirement.

Among the remaining departments, the county will lose 39 employees. This includes 4 full-time employees, 33 intermittent employees—which includes positions like lifeguards—and 2 probationary employees. 

"The intent of the Board’s direction on November 2 was to ensure 100 percent of county employees working with vulnerable populations were fully vaccinated by December 31," Lesher wrote. "That policy goal has been achieved." 

Overall, out of the county's four dozen departments, 13 were fully vaccinated, according to data from the county last week. The lowest rate of vaccinated employees was at the county Treasurer's Office, which had a vaccination rate of just 72 percent. The Sheriff's Department had a vaccination rate of 75 percent among all employees. 

Among those employees who work with vulnerable people, the Sheriff's Department had the lowest vaccination rate, followed by Parks and Recreation. Three departments, including Pima Animal Care, had vaccination rates of 100 percent. 

The county's move to institute the shot requirement for some workers came weeks before the arrival of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, which has shown to be significantly more virulent than previous versions of the COVID-19 virus. Over the last four weeks, the Omicron variant has become the dominant strain of COVID-19, accounting for more than 95 percent of coronavirus cases by Jan. 1, 2022, according to the CDC. "While early data suggest Omicron infections might be less severe than those of other variants, the increases in cases and hospitalizations are expected to stress the healthcare system in the coming weeks," the CDC said. 

Omicron has created a singular, massive spike in new cases since the year began. On Jan. 5, there were over 705,000 new cases reported, according to the CDC, doubling the January 2021 peak. The CDC said that the 7-day moving average of new daily cases increased nearly 86 percent compared with the previous average, rising from 315,851 cases to 586,391. 

Since New Year's Day, there were 76,700 new cases of COVID-19 in Arizona, rising to a peak of 17,916 cases reported on Jan. 4, according to figures from the Arizona Department of Health Services. Exactly a year earlier, the last great wave of COVID-19 cases caused cases to spike to just 12,455 cases. 

Last week, Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department, warned that the county would face a "stark upswing" in the number of COVID-19 cases, and had an overall case rate of 400 cases per 100,000 people. Additionally, testing in Pima County showed an astoundingly high positivity rate of 19 percent, ranging up to 45 percent at some testing locations. 

In October, the board voted for the measure—with Supervisor Steve Christy providing the sole vote against— and added that new employees and those looking for promotions will also need to be vaccinated. The supervisors also required county employees to get vaccinated to be able to work outside jobs, including part-time gigs or for sheriff's deputies, off-duty assignments, because "having outside employment or an off-duty assignment greatly increases the exposure risk of contracting COVID-19."

The vote by the four Democrats on the board maintained the incentive of a $300 bonus for employees who show have gotten their shots, as well as extra three days or leave that can be used in the next two years. Refusing to be vaccinated will also cost county employees, who will lose $45.51 from their paychecks after the board added a surcharge under Pima County's insurance plan managed by Aetna. 

If a county employee later decided to get vaccinated, the county said that they will repay that charge.

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said in October that COVID-19 cases have cost the county about $3.4 million, including about $1.5 million for in-patient hospital care, and another $400,000 for emergency room visit. Around 1,004 county employees have had COVID-19 infections, out of a workforce of close to 7,000, he said.

Overall, 207.8 million people have been vaccinated in the U.S., covering about 74 percent of the U.S. population. Among those who be vaccinated, which includes everyone over the age of 5, the vaccination rate is just over 79 percent. Another 75 million received booster shots, covering about 36.5 percent of the population.

Statewide around 70 percent of those eligible to be vaccinated have got their shots —which includes anyone over age 5. And, the state has vaccinated more than 3.9 million people, including another 19,700 doses administered Monday, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. 

However, the vaccination rate varies significantly by county, ranging from just 45 percent in La Paz County to 130 percent in Santa Cruz County, which has successfully vaccinated not only its eligible population, but also distributed thousands of doses to neighboring counties, and vaccinated hundreds of people from neighboring Sonora. 

Arizona ranks below 27 other states in its overall vaccination rate, falling far behind Vermont, which has managed to vaccinate 82 percent of the eligible population. Alabama is in last place, vaccinating just 51.2 percent of those eligible. 

Among neighboring states, Arizona has managed to fall to last place, dropping behind Utah and Nevada. California leads with 71.2 percent, just ahead of New Mexico which has 71 percent, and Colorado, which has covered 70.8 percent of those eligible. 

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