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Pima requiring gov't staff to get COVID shots if they work with 'vulnerable' populations

Employees covered by mandate include officers at Pima County Jail & juvenile detention center workers

After weeks of wrangling, the Pima County Board of Supervisors agreed to require some government employees — those who work with "vulnerable" populations — to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

That includes Pima County employees who work with children or the elderly, as well as those who work in the Pima County Jail and the juvenile detention facility.

Since August, the county board has grappled with requiring COVID-19 vaccinations of county staffers, but until Tuesday's meeting, the board instead relied on a $300 incentive to push more employees to get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus. During the last board meeting, the supervisors held off making a decision, instead asking county staff to include several options for consideration at this week's meeting.

The measure passed with a 4-1 vote Tuesday, with Supervisor Steve Christy the sole vote opposed. The measure requires county employees who work with vulnerable people to be vaccinated by January 1, 2022, or they will receive disciplinary action up to, and including termination.

People joining the county as 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 maintains 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. 

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said 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.

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

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The move comes as the county has hit a "plateau" of  COVID-19 cases. While two weeks ago, county officials identified a trend of gradually shrinking cases, over the last few weeks, COVID-19 infections have remained stubbornly stable.

On Oct. 9, the county had just one adult ICU bed available, and as of Oct. 14, just 10 out the county's 360 ICU beds were available, according to Pima County data.

Since the pandemic began, there have been 140,329 cases in Pima County, and 2,691 deaths. However, while there was a singificant fall-off of cases after the harsh and deadly winter, cases ramped up in August and have remained around 170 cases per 100,000 people, said Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county's chief medical officer.

Infections, Garcia said are "flat, but substantially higher than July or May."

In a memo to the board, Huckelberry wrote that on average 79 percent of county employees at 12 county departments are vaccinated at 95 percent or above. Remaining at the bottom is the Pima County Sheriff's Department, where just a paltry 57 percent of active employees are vaccinated.

As Huckelberry noted, "This is  quite surprising since COVID-19 is now the leading cause of death for police officers in the United States." He noted that a Wall Street Journal article from September showed that 420 police officers have died from the disease since the pandemic began in January 2020, "compared with 92 who have died from gunfire, the second-leading cause of death."

This data is backed by the Officer Down Memorial Page, which tracks the deaths of police officers and federal agents nationwide, and shows over in 2021, 237 police officers have lost their lives from COVID-19.

Two weeks ago, in a memo he wrote in September, Huckelberry told the board that 4,686 county employees were vaccinated, or about 75 percent. And, among the deputies and staff that make up the Sheriff's Department, just 48 percent were vaccinated.

During the last meeting, Sheriff Chris Nanos said an inmate died after he was exposed to COVID-19 at the Pima County Jail, and he pushed the board to link raises to vaccination status. Nanos called the jail a "petri dish" for COVID-19, and said that even after a 14-day quarantine and other measures, a man on probation violation was infected with COVID-19 and died from complications after he was infected, likely by a corrections officer.

Nanos, elected last year, said that when he came into the office last Nov. 17, he had 451 cases of COVID-19, but by the summer had whittled that number down to zero. However, within weeks, infection shot up 500 percent. "It's my employees who are bringing that in," he said.

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Supervisor Rex Scott in September said that he wouldn't vote for measures that called for suspensions or terminations of county staff for refusing to get vaccinated, preferring a "carrot approach" that relies on bonuses, or an approach that would allow people to avoid vaccination if they faced weekly testing, but during the meeting Tuesday, he shifted his position.

Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bronson asked why Scott had changed his position, and he replied that by narrowing the requirement to those who care for vulnerable populations he was more supportive of the measure. "We have a duty to protect people who fall into those categories to the, all of the extents that are practicable," he said. "And, so when that option was presented to us it caused me to think very deeply to be a member of one of those vulnerable populations, and I feel it's our duty to protect those people who are essentially defenseless that is a synonym for, for being vulnerable."

CDC data shows that those who are not vaccinated are 12 times as likely to be hospitalized after they're infected with COVID-19. While there are "breakthrough" cases where people who receive the vaccine still suffer from the disease and even die from it—most notably former Secretary of State Colin Powell on Monday—hospital managers have repeatedly called the latest COVID-19 hospitalizations an "epidemic of the unvaccinated."

During the board meeting Tuesday, Supervisor Matt Heinz, who serves as a medical doctor in Tucson, said that the "vast majority" of hospitalized patient and those who are dying are unvaccinated. He also alluded to statements made during the call-to-the-audience period, in which someone questioned whether doctors and nurses were doing their best to take care of people hit by COVID-19 who were unvaccinated.

Heinz, who has bristled as similar comments, said that health-care workers are "frankly, working our assess off to help unvaccinated people survive this, if we can."

Heinz supported the move, but called the discussion among the other supervisors "baffling."

"I've come from a place where willfully endangering my patients, any of us in healthcare, that is a fire-able offense, and it should be," he said. "It should be for the county," Heinz said, because its already a requirement at the the Department of Defense—which added a vaccination mandate in August—as well as the state's three public universities, which said on Friday that they requirement employees, including student workers, to be vaccinated Dec. 8 or seek a religious or medical exemption.

Huckelberry said that the county wanted to move forward, but set the date of compliance for Jan. 1, 2022 because that when expects that a lawsuit over state laws limited vaccination requirements will end.

"Liability is still in the air," Huckelberry said, adding once the courts make some decisions, the board will be given "more accurate counsel."

Before the vote, Christy objected as he has throughout the pandemic, complaining about the county's decision not to require asylum-seekers to be vaccinated as they move through the Casa Alitas shelter, and arguing that Maricopa County had not implemented a mandate. According to a memo, Huckelberry supplied to the board, around 10 counties with similar metropolitan areas have mandates in the western states—including San Jose, Calif., and Denver, Col.

Huckelberry wrote that, for example, Santa Clara County in California is requiring vaccines by Nov. 1, and King County in Washington is going to fire employees who are not vaccinated by Dec. 2.

Christy moves to censure Heinz

Christy put forth a motion to not require vaccines at all, but that move collapsed due to the lack of a second from any of the other board members.

Heinz found himself in hot water over an earlier incident in which he interrupted the call to the public that starts each meeting. Calling Heinz's move "clumsy" and "ham-fisted,"  Christy argued that Heinz attempted to "shut down" a speaker "merely because he didn't agree" was "unacceptable, reprehensible, and irresponsible."

He also attempted to force the supervisor to apologize, and sought an official censure, as well as an investigation if Heinz violated the law. However, Christy's motion was met with utter silence by the four Democrats.

Heinz then shot back, saying that the call to the public could become a "dangerous forum" if false information was given voice, and he added that he was worried that there would be more problems if the board return to in-person meetings. "Some folks just want to make a show," he said, "And, this takes away from the legitimate proceedings of the board." And, Heinz said that it was important "immediately correct" misinformation "for the sake of the community we serve."

Christy accused Heinz of rewriting history, adding that the supervisors "cannot interrupt the speaker during the time-frame when that speaker is allowed to make his or her say." because it's a "violation of protocol."

Bronson clamped down on this argument, telling the boardmembers, "let's move on, and try to be civil to one another."

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Move to meet in-person again hamstrung by Christie's refusal to wear masks

While Christy has repeatedly pushed for in-person meetings, he has balked at adhering to policies that would require him to wear a mask. When pushed during the last meeting,  Christy said that it was important for the board to meet in person, but said that he wanted to stay in his office and instead attend remotely if the county pushed its mandate for county employees and the public on him.

Christy said that the board should move to "hybrid" meetings, going back to the protocol the board followed throughout most of 2020. Since December 2020, the board has gone to completely virtual sessions, but over the last three meetings, Christy has argued for a return to in-person meetings. However, last month, his motion ultimately collapsed after he said he would not attend meetings if he was required to wear a mask.

Bronson said she wanted to wait until Tuesday's meeting to consider the issue, asking Huckelberry to put together a "package" that would detail the conditions for the next meeting to be held in person.

Supervisor Adelita Grijalva, who also sits on the TUSD Govering Board, noted that body has been holding in-person meetings, but call to the audience remains virtual, which she said makes it difficult to "hear and understand people."

This time she balked at the "hybrid" style meetings.

Heinz said he wouldn't be attending meetings in person, because he regularly treats COVID-19 patients.

"You know, I endanger my life every day when I spend an entire shift in the hospital, and I do not plan on taking the risk," Heinz said, adding he would attend the meetings virtually until there is "no significant COVID presence or transmission in the community."

During the discussion two weeks ago, Scott said he would support a motion, and added that "we ought to be able to comport ourselves" like county staff by wearing masks.

"I will not wear a mask at the board meeting as long as they are made mandatory," said Christy. "I don't think that the mandate should hinge on whether we return to meetings."

Grijalva said that this week that the board should all attend in person, and wear masks. Doing so will make it "less likely that people from public think they don't have to follow the rules."

"If all of us are prepared to go down and do our jobs, I'm happy to welcome the public into our board room," Grijalva said.

Bronson said she didn't favor having some supervisors attend remotely with others on the dais in the boardroom, as was done last year.

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"I would have to agree with Supervisor Grijalva, and it was really difficult to hear you (Christy) and Supervisor (Ally) Miller. I have problems with that model," Bronson said. "We all need to be there wearing masks." 

Scott noted that the board is already "asking county employees to come to work, and when they are in a county building thy are supposed to be wearing masks."

Christy called the arguments a "disingenuous approach by my colleagues," which he said, "speaks to the fact that they don't want to sit there, and listen face-to-face. avoiding having to do that under the cloak of this mask issue."

He also complained that the board had moved the goalposts, and asked rhetorically what data and science will help define when the board will re-open meetings.

"If you will join us on the dais, I will happy to resume in-person meetings," Bronson shot back.

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Supervisor Steve Christy during a Board of Supervisors meeting in 2019.

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