Warren County Supervisors discuss vaccine requirements for county employees

Published 4:13 pm Monday, July 26, 2021

Warren County employees could be required to wear a face mask or show proof of vaccination for COVID-19, if the Board of Supervisors votes in favor of such a requirement during its next meeting.

According to the board, the high number of unvaccinated essential employees at the county level is impacting emergency services.

Discussion at Monday’s working session revolved around whether or not Warren County employees should be required to be vaccinated, and what policies should be implemented regarding sick leave for employees who become ill.

District 5 supervisor Kelle Barfield stated that, based on conversations with board attorney Blake Teller, employers can legally require essential employees to be vaccinated.

“It’s not a HIPAA violation to ask for proof of vaccination, but they have the right to decline to answer,” Barfield said. “And then you have the right to say ‘That’s fine, we have the right to assume you (haven’t been vaccinated),’ and treat them as if they don’t have the vaccination.'”

The board specifically discussed a situation wherein an unvaccinated E911 dispatcher had to quarantine after their spouse tested positive for COVID-19. According to Warren County E911 Director Shane Garrard, only half of his 24 employees have been vaccinated for coronavirus.

This presents a staffing issue, Garrard said, and could impact public safety.

“It is a legitimate concern. We have about half of our staff that is vaccinated and half that is not,” Garrard said. “It would definitely put a damper on the 911 system in that, pretty much the same shift would have to work around the clock for multiple days.”

Garrard went on to say that other departments in Warren County are facing similar issues with low vaccination rates.

Board President Dr. Jeff Holland presented a similar option to one implemented by the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg: all personnel are required to wear masks, unless they voluntarily disclose their vaccine status. Those who are vaccinated can opt to wear a visible sign that shows they’re vaccinated, and do not have to wear masks.

“Which, of course, is not completely scientific, because from an indoor perspective, everybody has unintentionally spread disease whether you’ve had a vaccination or not,” Holland said.

County employees who test positive for COVID-19 will have to use their own sick leave while they quarantine.

District 1 Supervisor Ed Herring expressed hesitancy regarding more COVID-19 mandates at the county level.

His concerns, he said, were borne out of a desire for consistency across the board.

“My only challenge is, if we take the word ‘COVID-19’ out and put any other contagious virus in, do we treat it differently?” Herring said. “I see that all too often; we get hung up on the word ‘COVID’ when if it were the flu or chickenpox, we don’t care.

“We get so hung up on COVID and we treat it totally differently. That’s my concern. If we’re going to march, we have to march consistently, and I don’t see consistency happening.”

There has been a significant increase in coronavirus cases in Warren County over the last month — an increase of almost 10 times as many cases over the last four weeks, when compared to the month of May. According to the Mississippi State Department of Health, approximately 97 percent of new cases are among the unvaccinated.

“Over the last 14 days, as of Friday, it was 134 new cases in Warren County,” Holland said. “And that number is three times what it was before, when the two-week period showed 58 cases. That number was three times what it was in the two-week period before that. So, it’s 10 times what it was a month ago.

“The state is one of the five hotspots in the United States, percentage-wise, clearly not numbers-wise.”

No decision was made regarding the issue of mask requirements for county employees, but other options presented were a blanket mask requirement or incentives for employees to get vaccinated.

The Warren County Board of Supervisors will discuss the issue further and present a memorandum at their next scheduled meeting on Aug. 2.

“At this point, can we allow critical employees to willingly expose themselves to this virus?” Barfield said. “The ultimate goal will be something that encourages employees to get vaccinated, for those who haven’t. The numbers are not as robust as you’d assume they would be in every office. But short of requiring it for everybody, I don’t know that there is a way, other than making it a royal pain in the neck not to have been vaccinated.”

Holland said, regardless of what is decided, there needs to be a clear directive for employees regarding the management and prevention of coronavirus in Warren County.

“We need to put guidance out to people, to our own staff, about what they’re supposed to do if they test positive,” he said.