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Still no consensus on IW vaccine mandate

Isle of Wight’s Board of Supervisors revisited the idea of a COVID-19 vaccine-or-test mandate for county employees Sept. 2 but again deferred taking any action.

Last month, Gov. Ralph Northam announced all state employees, starting Sept. 1, will be required to either show proof of vaccination or be tested weekly, and encouraged localities to require the same for their employees.

Six Hampton Roads cities, including Suffolk, have done so, but some of Isle of Wight’s supervisors are resisting the idea, even though according to the county’s human resources director, Michelle Clark, only 42-43% of Isle of Wight’s employees have been vaccinated to date.

When the supervisors last discussed the issue on Aug. 19, they’d asked county staff to revise the proposed mandate’s wording to spell out that the testing will be at the county’s expense and that if a positive test later turns out to be false, the employee won’t lose his or her paid sick leave or vacation time for the days he or she spent in quarantine.

Those two changes have now been made with one caveat: days in quarantine for a false positive won’t count towards an employee’s sick leave or vacation time provided that employee immediately notifies the county’s Human Resources department upon testing positive and follows all U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidance when isolating. If an employee refuses to stay home while in quarantine, even if his or her positive test later turns out to be false, there’s no reimbursement.

Even with the requested changes, the supervisors came no closer to reaching a consensus Sept. 2.

“I struggle with throwing an ultimatum at people, especially when I know for a fact that someone this week died fully vaccinated,” said Newport District Supervisor William McCarty, who contracted and recovered from COVID-19 himself last December.

But Hardy District Supervisor Rudolph Jefferson also knows someone who’s had COVID-19

“I had a family member that tested positive, husband, a wife and two kids, and it was awful, still recovering,” Jefferson said. “So I encourage every citizen in Isle of Wight County and even out further to get the vaccination.”

He favors the mandate, arguing it’s incumbent upon every employee to do everything he or she can to protect themselves and protect others.

“Virginia is in a crisis with the virus … if we do nothing, what do we gain?” he asked, rhetorically. “we’re going to have to do something.”

Windsor District Supervisor Joel Acree also encouraged vaccination but questioned the three available shots’ efficacy against the more contagious delta variant, and whether any adverse reactions would be covered under workers’ compensation if Isle of Wight enacted a mandate.

Reuters reports a United Kingdom study published in May found the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine 88% effective against symptomatic disease from the delta variant two weeks after the second dose. The Pfizer vaccine received full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for ages 16 and up in August, and is still under an Emergency Use Authorization for ages 12 to 15.

As for workers’ compensation, an adverse vaccine reaction wouldn’t qualify, according to County Attorney Bobby Jones.

Carrsville District Supervisor Don Rosie said he felt a vaccine-or-test mandate would infringe “upon the personal rights and freedoms of our employees.”

“If we’re going to test, we test everybody,” not just those who haven’t been vaccinated, he said.

Jones, however, said requiring an employee to disclose his or her vaccination status by law is not the same as requesting medical records, and therefore wouldn’t be a violation of privacy protections in the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Isle of Wight, as of Aug. 23, has already reinstated its universal mask-wearing requirement for employees and visitors inside county government buildings.

“If I’m wearing my mask and my mask protects him,” McCarty asked, referring to Jones, “and his mask protects me, why are we having any more discussion?”

Smithfield District Supervisor Dick Grice questioned Northam’s authority, and Isle of Wight County’s, to issue a vaccine-or-test mandate given that Virginia’s declared state of emergency at the start of the pandemic ended June 30.

“His emergency authority ended some time ago; so did this board’s,” Grice said.