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Sonoma County approves COVID-19 vaccination mandate for county employees

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Sonoma County’s elected leaders Tuesday approved an order requiring about 4,400 county workers to get fully vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to weekly testing, a move intended to slow rampant spread of the highly contagious delta variant.

The action by the area’s largest employer came two weeks after county public health officials said they will require all area first responders — law enforcement, fire and emergency medical employees — to be inoculated by Sept. 1 or deal with weekly virus testing.

In handing down the directive, county supervisors were responding to a strong recommendation by county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase for all local employers to make COVID-19 vaccinations a condition for employment.

The county’s policy, which calls for employees to get shots by Sept. 3 or begin weekly testing Sept. 6, is less strict than inoculation mandates recently approved in San Francisco, as well as the state and its large hospital systems for all health care workers. Those edicts do not allow frequent virus testing as an alternative.

Even so, dozens of county residents objected to the rule approved by a 4-0 vote during Tuesday’s meeting of the Board of Supervisors. Some argued the order violated personal freedom and was unconstitutional, while others raised concerns about long-term effects of what they considered an “experimental vaccine.”

Despite the objections, supervisors endorsed the order for full- and part-time county employees. The policy also applies to executives and employees of special districts like the agriculture and open space district, the community development commission, the county’s retirement and water agencies.

Also, at Tuesday’s Santa Rosa City Council meeting, interim city manager Jeff Kolin said the council at its Aug. 31 session would consider a similar vaccination policy for the city’s 1,250 city employees.

Less than an hour after supervisors approved the inoculation order, county public health officials reported two additional deaths of unvaccinated people related to the infectious disease, bringing the local pandemic death toll since March 2020 to 340 fatalities.

A man between 50 and 64, who had underlying health conditions, died Aug. 6. Another man, between 18 and 49 with no underlying health problems, died Aug. 10. Both men died at local hospitals.

Mendocino County health officials Tuesday reported one more COVID-19 death there, a 49-year-old unvaccinated Ukiah man. There have been 56 virus-related deaths in that county.

Meanwhile, Sonoma County supervisors acknowledged the strong opposition to the vaccination requirement expressed during the meeting, but approved the measure. Supervisor David Rabbitt was absent.

“I believe the data and the advice that the way we get to a future without vaccines and without masks is to use these tools right now,” Supervisor Chris Coursey said. “I support this mandate for our employees and I urge everyone to get vaccinated, practice social distancing and masking.”

Addressing several residents who claimed the order forced people to get vaccinated against their will, Lynda Hopkins, chair of the supervisors, said employees could opt for regular testing if they didn’t want the shots.

“We are offering folks an alternative and a choice — either regular testing or requiring proof of vaccination,“ Hopkins said.

Prior to taking up the issue of the vaccine requirement for county workers, public health officials gave supervisors an update on the summer tidal wave of COVID-19 cases, which they said is close to rivaling the winter surge of the pandemic.

They said the viral transmission rate is 19.6 new daily infections per 100,000 residents, while the overall test positivity — the share of positive cases — is 6.1%. There are 84 people infected by the coronavirus being treated in local hospitals, with 15 in intensive care, according to the latest county data.

Virus-related deaths, which lag hospitalizations by a few weeks, also have climbed from one in May, to four in June, then to 16 in July. So far in August, there have been five fatalities.

Public health officials said 80% of COVID-19 hospitalizations and over 90% of infected patients in ICU units are unvaccinated. All but five of the 340 deaths from the virus involved unvaccinated people, officials said.

The summer spike follows a dramatic lull during the spring, with many wondering if the worst of the pandemic was over. By mid-June, the state had reopened completely and mask mandates were lifted. Face-covering mandates for indoor public settings returned in early August.

Within weeks, new coronavirus cases began increasing, largely driven by the delta strain of the virus, which public health officials said Tuesday was 60% more transmissible and contains 1,000 times the viral load of the coronavirus first detected in Wuhan, China last year.

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

However, during the Tuesday supervisors’ meeting, many residents who decried the county’s vaccine requirement, dismissed the science behind the COVID-19 pandemic. Some even questioned whether the historic public health crisis is as bad as health officials and the mainstream media have portrayed it.

One speaker pointed out that the reported number of people who have died countywide of the virus is less than 1% of the county’s total population of about 490,000.

One speaker, who identified herself as a county employee and “very liberal,” raised questions about the logistics and burden of having to test weekly all of the county workers who decline vaccinations.

“Is the county ready to lose a lot of employees, because people are going to stand by their convictions and not let someone rule over them,” she said.

Several residents said it was pointless to require inoculations when local, state and federal health officials have said that even vaccinated individuals can contract the coronavirus.

However, public health officials have stated that the vaccines greatly reduce the chance of becoming infected, and fully inoculated people who do contract the virus are less likely to come down with severe symptoms, end up in the hospital or die.

Numerous residents said the county’s order violated the Nuremberg Code, a set of research ethics that arose from the prosecution of Nazis after World War II. They said a vaccine requirement violates the code’s requirement of voluntary informed consent.

Robert Pittman, the Sonoma County counsel, said that code applies to unlawful human experimentation and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization of the vaccines makes that argument a moot point.

“It is not considered experimentation,” Pittman said. “It was approved based on data and determined to be safe and effective for use for vaccinations, which is why the FDA allowed us to move forward, although it was a very expedited process and they're still looking at permanent approval.”

Staff Writer Andrew Graham contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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