Johnson County will require all employees to get tested weekly for COVID-19 if they do not submit proof of vaccination by Dec. 13 under a policy passed by the Board of Supervisors on Thursday.
The Supervisors voted 3-2 to mandate that 540 county employees receive a COVID-19 vaccine or get tested weekly for the virus unless an exemption for religious or medical reasons is received. Supervisors Jon Green and Rod Sullivan voted against the policy, saying an exemption for religious reasons should not have been included.
The county will have to develop a more detailed procedure on how to identify employees who are not vaccinated. Those workers will be required to begin weekly COVID-19 testing and wearing face coverings in the workplace the week of Jan. 3.
Employees who have not provided proof they are fully vaccinated, or do not have an approved exemption from testing by Dec. 30, will be required to comply with COVID-19 testing requirements. Employees may face criminal penalties for knowingly providing false statements or documentation.
If an employee does not submit results of a COVID-19 test within a seven-day period, the department's supervisor is advised and will make disciplinary decisions. That employee will also not be permitted in the workplace until they participate in the testing and test negative.
Johnson County has been considering this policy since President Joe Biden issued an executive order directing employers with 100 or more workers to have their employees be fully vaccinated or face weekly testing. Employers had until Dec. 6 to develop and adopt a policy that follows the executive order.
An employee is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after getting either two shots of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Despite legal challenges across the country to the president's executive order, Johnson County is choosing to comply rather than face litigation from the federal level. The Johnson County Attorney's Office told the board in November that litigation from the federal level, the state or its own employees could still come no matter what decision was made.
Polk County enacted a similar policy in September, four days after the executive order was issued. The Des Moines Register reported that the policy has received pushback from Polk County Sheriff Kevin Schneider, who refused to begin testing unvaccinated employees in his office.
Johnson County Sheriff Brad Kunkel said he intends to have his department comply with the policy and Supervisor Pat Heiden said she doesn't expect any departments to fight the policy the way that Schneider did in Polk County.
Iowa City Manager Geoff Fruin said the city has not made any determinations regarding a vaccine policy while the legal challenges are pending, but would be subject to the executive order if it survives them.
'Soft launch': Johnson County tries to work out details of how testing will work
Lora Shramek, director of Johnson County's Human Resources Department, said the county issued a "soft launch" of the policy asking department heads and elected officials to voluntarily submit their proof of vaccinations and got 125 responses.
Susie Nehring, the assistant Johnson County attorney, cautioned the Board of Supervisors that this policy could have to be changed or updated due to the legal challenges to the executive order but said getting this done now will help the county get a sense of where it is. She said it will also help the county sort of details like what type of COVID-19 test to use.
"Also we don't want to have a 'the sky is falling' mentality about the new (omicron) variant, but we all know that these situations can pivot into a whole direction that we hadn't anticipated," she said. "By moving forward with a policy now, the board would be in a better position to respond if the threat becomes much more pronounced than what we're dealing with as of today."
Johnson County is averaging 375 cases of COVID-19 in the last seven days, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health, and the county leads the state with 68% of its population fully vaccinated.
Kunkel and Johnson County Ambulance Department Director Fiona Johnson expressed concerns with how the policy deals with testing late-shift workers. Kunkel also took issue with charging employees for the COVID-19 tests.
"I think imposing that fee is going to seem punitive and not fair. Even though I disagree with not being vaccinated, people have their own strong beliefs about that and it seems to me that we're punishing those people monetarily for how they feel," he said.
Kunkel said he thinks the county needs to cover that fee.
Nehring said she thinks the concern about having one time slot for all employees to be tested is valid, but it is complicated to figure out how to staff testing sites. She said the board could make a better call on this once the county figures out how many employees would have to be tested.
Supervisors try to eliminate 'strong beliefs' religious exemptions
The religious exemption for "strongly held beliefs" was initially struck down from the policy Thursday on a 3-2 vote with Heiden and Supervisor Lisa Green-Douglass voting against the amendment.
After a brief discussion about the ramifications of not having this exemption and a three-minute recess, the board came back and reversed the decision when Supervisor Royceann Porter changed her vote.
The approved exemption to testing and face-covering requirements may include a medical or disability exemption or a sincerely held religious belief, practice or observance. Employees have to fill out an exemption form and submit it to HR by Dec. 30.
Porter said she voted to consider Green's amendment striking the exemption so the board could discuss it.
Porter, on Wednesday, seemed to be against having an exemption for strongly held beliefs or religious beliefs and pointed out that many other vaccines are required in order for children to attend schools in the United States.
"A lot of people throw in my face that we don't know what's in the shot. We don't know what's in the Dr. Pepper we drink," she said. "People just need to stop all these conspiracy theories going on. Enough is enough."
Supervisor Rod Sullivan suggested people should not work for Johnson County if they hold a belief against getting vaccinated.
Sullivan said Thursday that he believes that having this exemption would put the county in the impossible position of having to determine whether someone's belief is genuine.
"I don't have any time for people who aren't going to do this basic safety thing. If you don't want to do it, don't work here," he said. "I totally agree that there are people who have medical reasons. ... We should absolutely accommodate that the best way we can."
Green-Douglass said she can't justify making the county and its taxpayers pay for COVID-19 testing for people who do not want or believe in getting a vaccine.
"There is a huge disconnect, I think, when the No. 1 killer of law enforcement in the last year-and-a-half has been COVID," she said. "There are ways to lower that number of law enforcement officers getting it if you have requirements in place for that safety, masks for example."
George Shillcock is the Press-Citizen's local government and development reporter covering Iowa City and Johnson County. He can be reached at GShillcock@press-citizen.com and on Twitter @ShillcockGeorge
This article originally appeared on Iowa City Press-Citizen: Johnson County requires COVID-19 vaccination or testing for all staff