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City Commission delays vaccine mandate, commissioners say resistance to the mandate is based on misinformation

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

Today the Gainesville City Commission voted to delay the vaccine mandate for employees to a deadline of October 1 for the first shot but extended the mandate to City contractors who work with City employees.

Commissioner Harvey Ward said he wanted to make the mandate more “useful” and “fair” by mandating vaccines of contractors who work with City employees; he also wanted to establish a “disability fund” specific to COVID issues, particularly for any employees whose physicians can prove that they had a long-term impact from the vaccine. Ward made a motion to ask the charter officers to develop a plan by September 16 to require vaccination of all City contractors working alongside employees who have to be vaccinated. Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos seconded the motion. 

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Commissioner Reina Saco said she would support “as many safety measures in place to keep our community builders safe” (“community builders” is the City’s term for employees). Saco said she has thought about the possibility that the City would collapse because half the workforce is dead or if the City would collapse because half the workforce walks out. She advocated for more time for Communications to “engage with departments… and bargaining units… I do want more time.” She suggested that employees submit to weekly testing if unvaccinated and wanted to move the deadline to at least October 1. 

“I don’t want to see people get fired over this. I want them to get their shot. That’s all.” – Commissioner David Arreola

Commissioner David Arreola said, “What is not a mistake is getting your shot. That’s not a mistake… I’m not willing to change my mind on requiring people to take that shot because it will save lives… There’s a lot of people who said… ‘I’m just not gonna get my shot’… If we get to our herd immunity number, we’re gonna be fine… but I’m seeing a lot of people thinking that getting their shot is not that important. But it is, though. It’s a marvel of modern medicine… This is the inflection point… I don’t want to see people get fired over this. I want them to get their shot. That’s all.”

Ward added the October 1 deadline to the motion. 

Commissioner Gail Johnson said she appreciated what Saco and Arreola had said, but “I still will not be able to support it… I absolutely believe that we need to meet people where they are when it comes to these really big decisions, and we did not do that. We didn’t have the discussion, we didn’t think through how we are going to implement this… I agree with the goal and the outcome. We want health and safety to be paramount for our employees and our community… We want.. most of our community builders to be vaccinated.” She said she would have preferred to talk to people first, then invite everyone to the table to discuss the goal and how to get there, including incentives and FDA approval. 

Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said it’s “important for us to meet our people where they are. It’s important for us to listen… I hope we do this differently the next time.”

You can’t base those decisions on a popularity test. I’m fine with being despised if it means you get to live the rest of your life.” – Mayor Lauren Poe

Mayor Lauren Poe said, “I’m terrified every morning that my daughters and my wife walk out to go to school… You can’t base those decisions on a popularity test. I’m fine with being despised if it means you get to live the rest of your life.”

Ward added to his motion direction to charters to bring back a plan for a potential COVID leave pool and a plan for a potential COVID vaccine disability fund, should such a fund be necessary. 

Hayes-Santos said to the people in the room, many of whom were City employees protesting the mandate, “I hear your concerns, but I have a duty… to create a safe workplace.”

During public comment, Nathan Skop said, “This mandate is overwhelmingly opposed by City employees… Just like you failed to acknowledge the people who came from Archer, you don’t care what people think. It’s all about  your political agenda… Just another example of government overreach by the Gainesville City Commission… What happened to my body, my choice?… This is what happens when you divorce talking points from data… The COVID-19 vaccine does not contribute to herd immunity because it does not prevent a vaccinated person from contracting or transmitting the Delta variant. Mayor Poe has stated this from the dais. The vaccine does NOT protect the people around the vaccinated person. The vaccine does appear to be somewhat effective at preventing severe disease, and thus it affects only the vaccinated individual and should be an individual decision…”

Tristan Grunder, President of Gainesville’s Fraternal Order of Police, said that 52% of his membership said they would “walk out the door” if the mandate holds.

Overall, 14 people spoke against the vaccine mandate, and 2 spoke in favor. One woman who spoke in favor of the mandate was in tears on the phone, saying how afraid she was of catching COVID in her office and that she didn’t feel safe at work.

“I need to very clearly state that this vaccine is not experimental. It has been under development for almost 20 years. It is one of the most remarkable medical achievements we’ve seen in that period. This is the type of headwinds that we’re fighting, that people keep repeating these fallacies; in the absence of any other information, they absorb that as true.” – Mayor Lauren Poe

After public comment, Poe responded emphatically to the members of the public who said they had reservations about the vaccine, “I need to very clearly state that this vaccine is not experimental. It has been under development for almost 20 years. It is one of the most remarkable medical achievements we’ve seen in that period. This is the type of headwinds that we’re fighting, that people keep repeating these fallacies; in the absence of any other information, they absorb that as true. So yes, we need to do a better job of communicating factual information so people understand the risks from the vaccine are far outweighed by the risks of COVID. It’s not even close… I do continue to want to support many of the requests that have been made, and I will – for a disability fund for any long-term effects of the vaccine, for extending the deadline, for requiring folks you have to work next to to be vaccinated as well, to protect everybody’s health – but the disinformation has got to stop. That will kill far more people than the vaccine, which – 3 people have died of the vaccine, the J&J vaccine, because of blood clots that we now know how to treat. 4 and a half million people have died from COVID.”

However, the CDC is reporting 6,789 possible vaccine deaths: “More than 357 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines were administered in the United States from December 14, 2020, through August 16, 2021. During this time, VAERS received 6,789 reports of death (0.0019%) among people who received a COVID-19 vaccine. FDA requires healthcare providers to report any death after COVID-19 vaccination to VAERS, even if it’s unclear whether the vaccine was the cause. Reports of adverse events to VAERS following vaccination, including deaths, do not necessarily mean that a vaccine caused a health problem.”

The CDC also says that mRNA vaccines are “a new type of vaccine,” and they have not yet received full FDA approval. However, full approval is expected soon, possibly as early as September.

Arreola added, “I know the discussion was about the policy… but as you can see, people have taken this opportunity to spread complete falsehoods about vaccines. That is unbecoming of this chamber… we can disagree about policy, but let us not go around spreading falsehoods about medicine that is saving lives.”

“So I understand that some people speak from a very comfortable place of privilege when they spout falsehoods and misinformation.” – Commissioner Reina Saco

Saco was indignant: “This country has a very long, long history of mandating vaccines, and I understand there are a lot of people here who have never had to suffer the trauma of immigrating, losing everything you know and love, but to come to this country, you are required to have a very broad panel of vaccines, with very limited… exceptions on religious reasons, or you get to stay in whatever war-torn, devoid of food, devoid of housing, natural disaster destroyed, country you are stuck in. So I understand that some people speak from a very comfortable place of privilege when they spout falsehoods and misinformation. That said, we are not the only entities with this choice before them. There are whole states requiring that all state employees get vaccinated… So we’re not doing this flippantly… We need a more proactive, as opposed to passive, information campaign.”

However, those requirements only apply to legal immigrants; large numbers of people are coming across the southern border without any requirement for vaccination, with the mayor of McAllen, TX, saying, “Positive or non-positive, they get picked up, and they’re going out. And we have no authority to stop it.”

Ward said, “I want to remind everyone that there are… people… on the other side of this from most of the folks who came down and rallied. A lot of them have contacted me and said, ‘There’s no way I’m gonna come down and talk to everybody, not gonna walk through a crowd of angry people to tell you this, but you need to have a mandate.’… Recognize that those folks exist, too.”

However, many people phoned in comments during the meeting; there was no requirement to speak in person.

The commission first voted on the first two parts of the motion: “Direct the charter officers to develop a plan to require vaccination of all City contractors working alongside City workers who are required to be vaccinated in a non-incidental manner and that the plan be implemented by September 16 and extend initial deadline to October 1 for proof of vaccination first dose and October 31 for proof of second dose.” (Based on the discussion, it appears that the phrase “in a non-incidental manner” should have been added after “working alongside City workers,” not after “vaccinated.”)

That passed 5-2, with Duncan-Walker and Johnson in dissent.

The third part was “Direct charters to bring back a plan for a potential COVID leave pool and a plan for a potential COVID vaccine disability fund, should it be necessary.” That motion passed unanimously.

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