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100+ Pima County gov't workers could be fired for not getting COVID shots by Dec. 31

87% of staffers interacting with 'vulnerable populations' have been vaccinated, but 100 or more could be terminated for refusing

Up to 200 Pima County employees could be terminated because they have refused to get their vaccinations against COVID-19, flouting a policy for those who work with vulnerable people. But 87 percent have complied, and more could turn in evidence they've gotten their shots.

Just before the deadline set by the Pima County Board of Supervisors, more than 87 percent of county staffers who interact with people at risk from the virus have been vaccinated, according to data published Thursday by the County Administrator's Office. But the precise number of county workers who will be fired isn't yet clear.

In a memo, Acting County Administrator Jan Lesher told the supervisors that out of 2,095 county employees who work with vulnerable people, just 213 remain unvaccinated. This includes 112 corrections officers or sergeants at the county jail, she wrote. 

In total, just 10 percent of county employees who work with vulnerable people are not vaccinated. And, among the county's total full-time employees, around 6 percent are not yet vaccinated, according to Thursday's data. 

"This is a very fluid situation with data coming in hourly," Lesher wrote. Lesher told the supervisors that while employees face a deadline of Dec. 31 to get vaccinated, "many employees are claiming that they intend on getting vaccinated" before Friday. With this in mind, Lesher said that Pima County officials have been told to issue final paperwork after the deadline, but before Jan. 7, 2022.

At the Pima County Sheriff's Department, which had the largest contingent of unvaccinated employees on Nov. 18, the number dropped by 47 percent from 229 to 122 employees.

However, Sheriff Chris Nanos said there's a "discrepancy" between the county's figures from Human Resources and the numbers he is tracking. 

Nanos told TucsonSentinel.com on Thursday that just 24 of his officers were not vaccinated, and would not seek to get their shots before the deadline. The difference between the figures released by Lesher on Thursday and his own, Nanos chalked up to a "lag in paperwork" because of the holidays, and he said that better figures were likely to come by Jan. 3.

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COVID shot mandate set in October

During a meeting in October, the board of 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 by Jan. 1, 2022.

While the move has been controversial, the county has been able to drive down the number of unvaccinated employees, as more 200 county employees sought their shots, or otherwise were able to present their vaccination status to county officials.

Lesher told the supervisors that the final number of county employees who will be let go over the issue isn't yet clear.

"While unvaccinated employees working with vulnerable populations will not be permitted in the work environment, delaying the issuance of the final paperwork will ensure that each affected employee was given the full opportunity to comply with the vaccination directive," Lesher wrote, adding that more "definitive" numbers of terminations will come early next week. 

On Nov. 18, roughly 427 employees out of the 2,095 who work with vulnerable people were not vaccinated, according to data from the county. On Dec. 30, 213 had not confirmed their vaccination status, or sought vaccinations—a decrease of about 50 percent. 

Statewide around 69 percent of those eligible to be vaccinated have got their shots —which includes anyone over age 5. And, the state has vaccinated 3.9 million people, including another 34,000 doses administered on Wednesday, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. 

The city of Tucson instituted its own vaccination mandate, and by Dec. 2 just 11 full-time employees had refused vaccinations, along with 28 temporary workers.

Sheriff Nanos told the Sentinel on Thursday that while he "didn't want to lose anyone" because of the mandate, it was a matter of public safety, both for the community and those in the Pima County jail for corrections officers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

"We have to ask ourselves, did we do enough, and if the answer is no, we need to do more to protect our community," Nanos said. 

The Sheriff's Department has the largest staff of all county departments, and it also had the largest share of employees who work directly with vulnerable people. At least 70 percent of those who work with vulnerable people are vaccinated, said Nanos. 

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In recent weeks, PCSD has sought to get more employees vaccinated because he said "everyone is valuable here, they wouldn't be here if they weren't good at their job." However, Nanos said that the county has already lost three inmates to COVID-19, and that "was enough for me." 

"We've been following the CDC's guidance since the pandemic began, and the science tells us that vaccinations work," he said.

"My goal is not popular, but I'm not here for a popularity contest," Nanos said. "I'm here to make the right decisions." 

The county's move 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. Earlier this week, the CDC noted that Omicron cases were over 50 percent of the total number of COVID-19 cases, and in some parts of the U.S. COVID-19 cases have spiked, rising to numbers not seen since the huge increase of cases last winter. 

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 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. 

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.

In a memo to the board that month, 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 prior, 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.

Earlier this year, Nanos said an inmate died after he was exposed to COVID-19 at the county jail, and he pushed the supervisors 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 arrestd on a probation violation was infected with COVID-19 — likely by a corrections officer — and died from complications.

Nanos, elected last year, said that when he came into the office, 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.

On average, 92 percent of all county employees who work with vulnerable people are already vaccinated, with rates ranging from 70 percent at the Sheriff's Department to 100 percent among employees at Behavioral Health and the Pima Animal Care Center. 

Surprisingly, the Pima County Health Department's percentage of vaccinated staff who work with vulnerable people hasn't hit 100 percent, but hovers around 98 percent because four employees are either unvaccinated, or have not confirmed their vaccinations with the county. Among its total employees, the unvaccinated rate for PCHD is 1 percent. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A Pima County sheriff's deputy receives a COVID-19 vaccination during a clinic at Tucson Medical Center in January 2021.

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