County commission to mandate masks for employees and in County buildings
August 3, 2021
BY JENNIFER CABRERA
During the COVID-19 discussion at today’s Alachua County Commission meeting, the board heard an update from Alachua County Fire Rescue (ACFR) Chief Harold Theus. Theus said local hospitals are “taxed” with a lot of COVID-19 patients, rivaling last year’s spike. He said that ACFR added a rescue unit to transport additional patients to the hospital, but they haven’t had enough staff to fill it. They’ve started transporting more patients to free-standing emergency rooms instead of hospital emergency rooms and stopped transporting step-down patients to other counties.
Theus said he received an update yesterday afternoon from the hospitals: North Florida Regional Medical Center (NFRMC) had 120 COVID-positive patients, with 24 in the ICU. 90-92% of the patients are unvaccinated, and all of the ICU patients are unvaccinated. UF Health Shands had 152 COVID-positive patients, with 33 in the ICU. Shands also has 9 pediatric patients, with 4 in the ICU.
Theus emphasized that our hospitals are regional and are bringing in significant numbers of patients from surrounding counties–Lake City was mentioned repeatedly as sending patients to NFRMC. NFRMC is temporarily discontinuing elective surgeries to free up space. He said that both hospitals were confident that they could manage their capacity and that the hospitals are “not even close” to being full.
New County policies
County Manager Michele Lieberman presented new policies that she will enact in the coming days and weeks. She said that starting tomorrow, both vaccinated and unvaccinated people will be required to wear masks inside buildings controlled by the County.
Lieberman said she’s not comfortable recommending mandatory vaccines for employees; she recommended a policy that allows employees to have a choice about being vaccinated, but the County “still needs to protect our employees as a whole, and we still need to protect the public.”
All employees who are fully-vaccinated will have until August 31 to provide proof of vaccination; if no proof is provided, the employee will be considered unvaccinated. Fully-vaccinated employees will have to wear a mask indoors, in meetings, or with customers, unless eating, drinking, or sleeping (applies mainly to firefighters). Unvaccinated employees will be required to wear a mask at all times, including outdoors or within firehouses, unless eating, drinking, or sleeping. Unvaccinated employees will be required to test weekly, and that will begin as soon as the logistics are addressed but no later than September 1.
The County will reinstitute a one-week paid leave for vaccinated employees who test positive. Unvaccinated employees will not be eligible for the paid leave.
The County will also discourage in-person staff meetings and any employee gatherings for non-business reasons. They are looking into using American Rescue Plan funds to incentivize the vaccine.
Commissioners asked about making vaccines mandatory for employees, and Lieberman responded that she had as much operational concern about losing employees because of such a policy as from COVID-19.
Chair Ken Cornell said, “The science says [the vaccine] will protect you, it will protect your families.” He said County employees have called him, saying they’re concerned about other employees who say they have a right to not get vaccinated. Cornell said employees tell him, “What about my rights? I have a 10-year-old. I live with my 90-year-old grandmother. I can’t get COVID and take it home. I don’t want to be around other employees who aren’t vaccinated.” Cornell added, “I want to make sure [employees are] protected.”
Lieberman said she views the policy as an interim step and hopes staff “rise to the occasion… To the staff, I want to be clear: if this doesn’t work, then I will be standing here recommending mandatory vaccinations.”
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