Columbia city employees near 80% COVID vaccination rate as employee mandate looms

Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook gets a COVID-19 vaccine shot from Prisma Health on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021.
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Nearly 80% of the city of Columbia’s employees have had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as city officials continue to ponder implementing a vaccine mandate in November.

City manager Teresa Wilson said during a Tuesday city council meeting that 78% of the city’s roughly 2,200 employees have had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and that 74% of the employees are fully vaccinated. That is up sharply from mid-September, when less than 50% of the city’s employees were fully vaccinated, per Wilson.

The city has been offering a $500 bonus to employees who get vaccinated.

The figures come as Wilson said the city is working toward finalizing a vaccine mandate policy that would take effect Nov. 1. Wilson said city leaders are continuing to work out what the consequences would be for employees who do not get vaccinated, but she said immediate termination would not be part of the equation.

Wilson said she wants employees to be able to continue to work for the city, but because the policy will mandate vaccines, consequences are a must. The timing and depth of those consequences is still being worked out.

“I don’t recommend we terminate anybody on Nov. 1,” Wilson said. “We are building in some deadlines in that policy.”

Wilson some of the consequences for unvaccinated employees could include not getting raises in the near future, as their decision to not adhere to a city policy would be considered in employee evaluations. She also floated the idea of instituting COVID leave time for vaccinated employees, which unvaccinated employees could not tap into.

The city already has weekly COVID testing protocols in place for unvaccinated employees, and those protocols will continue.

The city manager said unvaccinated employees can fill out forms to seek medical or religious exemptions, or pregnancy deferrals, for the vaccine. She said approval of those requests is not automatic, but city staff is taking them “very seriously.”

“I am trying to recommend opportunities for our employees to keep their jobs,” Wilson said. “But, if you choose not to be vaccinated, and you are given the opportunity to still maintain your employment, there will have to be consequences in place, and protocols to include continued testing.”

Wilson told the council she wants to extend the $500 incentive for city employees to get vaccinated, originally set to expire in November, to Dec. 31.

City Councilman Howard Duvall lauded Wilson’s approach of incentives and frank discussions to goose the employee vaccination rate up near 80%. But the councilman implored the remaining employees to consider getting their shots.

“These people who are refusing to get the vaccination are putting themselves at risk, they are putting their families at risk, they are putting their co-workers at risk and they are putting the people they serve in the city of Columbia at risk,” Duvall said.

New COVID-19 cases, which have been troubling for most of the late summer and early fall, have been falling recently. On Tuesday, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control reported its lowest daily number of new COVID-19 cases in months with just more than 600. South Carolina has had more than 888,000 positive COVID cases and more than 13,000 deaths, per DHEC.

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