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Pima County considering CV vax mandate for gov't, hospital staff; School mask order under review

Tucson City Council also to discuss employee vaccination requirement

The Pima County Board of Supervisors may make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for county employees and health care workers, and will review requiring face masks in all K-12 schools here.

The moves come as Pima County finds itself with a such a sustained pace of new coronavirus infections — rising to 272 cases on Friday, the highest total since February 10 — that the CDC increased its assessment of the level of pandemic severity here from "substantial" to "high" rates of transmission.

As part of the agenda for the county's virtual meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will consider implementing a vaccination requirement for all of the county's employees by October 1. The county will also consider setting a shot deadline for all health care workers, requiring vaccinations by September 1.

The supervisors will also consider requiring all schools in the county to mandate that students, teachers and others wear face-coverings while indoors on school property, regardless of vaccination status. Some exceptions would be allowed.

The moves will likely put the county into a head-on conflict with the Arizona governor's office, and Republicans in the state Legislature who passed a bill earlier this year to block mask mandates and vaccination requirements. However, multiple school districts in the state have passed their own mask mandates, including Tucson Unified School District last week, and there are signs that other large employers, including Banner Health, the Veterans Administration, and the Defense Department have implemented vaccination mandates.

Vaccines required for county staff

Reported by TucsonSentinel.com last week, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry outlined the plan in a memo to the board, writing that the increase in reported coronavirus infections because of the Delta variant of COVID-19, along with a "generally static" vaccination rate meant the county should no longer take a "wait and see approach."

Instead, Huckelberry said that continued employment with the county should hinge on vaccination, and said that all county staffers should be vaccinated by October 1.

At least 2,046 of the county's approximately 6,800 employees are vaccinated against COVID-19,  according to a memo from Cathy Bohland, the county's director of human resources.

In her memo, Bohland wrote the roughly 2,000 employees asked for an "I'm vaccinated badge," and were verified by a review of their vaccination card, but that the  number is likely higher. However, she said that this left around 4,800 employees who require vaccination, and she said it would be difficult to "ascertain the number of exemption requests."

"However, their requests may not only include medical and religious exemptions, but personal and ethical exemptions as well," Bohland wrote. "Meaning, while the personal and ethical exemptions will not qualify for an accommodation, each exemption request must be reviewed on its own to determine its nature and would require the review of any necessary follow-up information to ensure an accurate understanding of the nature of the request."

Based on the previous experience of Houston Methodist—a hospital campus in Texas which implemented its own requirement in April—the county could expect at least 136 people to seek exemptions, she wrote. This could reach as high as 702 people, she wrote.

"Because it is an individualized assessment..." she wrote,"... this will be a time- consuming process."

Bohland added that the county spent $3.2 million for COVID-19 related claims covering 5,308 people, which includes not just county employees, but also dependents. And, over the past six months,  COVID-19 costs are increasing, she said, and the county's benefits trust paid out nearly $.14 million over the last six months, from January to June.

"Vaccinating our employees not only protects the employee, but also the public," Huckelberry wrote. Many Pima County departments and agencies are involved in the delivery of direct services to the public, increasing the public's risk to COVID-19 exposure if employees are unvaccinated. Vaccination will minimize the risk of employees acquiring COVID-19 infection from an unvaccinated employee or our employees who are unvaccinated transmitting COVID-19 to the public."

Meanwhile, the Tucson City Council will discuss the possibility that the city follow the Board of Supervisors' lead and require employees to get vaccinated and wear masks, along with other mitigation efforts. This will be part of a study session meeting scheduled for Tuesday at 11:45 a.m.

Shots required for health care workers?

Dr. Matt Heinz, the supervisor for District 2,  pushed the Board of Supervisors to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for health care workers in Pima County, and support staff. 

Heinz, who works as a medical doctor in a local hospital, pushed the board to implement the vaccination mandate, requiring employers to document the vaccinations and send that information to the Pima County Health Department. And, he asked PCHD to "lay out clear compliance and accountability metrics, as well as consequences for non-compliance" by Friday, August 20.

Some people can claim an exemption, Heinz wrote, citing the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Mask mandate for all K-12 schools?

Heinz also pushed the Board of Supervisors to implement a county-wide mask mandate for schools. While Tucson Unified School District implemented a mask mandate last week, other school districts have avoided mandates because of HB 2898, the state law intended to ban them.

In a draft resolution submitted to the board, Heinz wrote that hospitalization continue to "constitute a public health emergency" and asked the board to implement the mandate in all schools. The Pima County Health Department issued a public health advisory earlier this summer, strongly recommending  that all teachers,  staff, students and visitors wear masks "regardless of vaccination status."

"It is also our job as a community to take the necessary measures to ensure that our K-12 schools can remain open for the entire school year, including taking personal responsibility to mask up ourselves when out in public and to get vaccinated if we have not already done so, to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and protect the most vulnerable members of our community," Heinz wrote.

And, he criticized HB 2898, writing that the bill was included "at the last minute to appease one hold-out legislator on the budget, and rammed through both houses of the Legislature on the final day of the legislative session - on a party-line vote and with no time for public review or comment."

The former state legislator added that the bill may violate the "single subject rule" of the Arizona Constitution, and may be unconstitutional.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A sheriff's deputy gets a COVID-19 vaccination during a clinic at Tucson Medical Center in Jan.

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