Sep. 15—The Howard County Health Department is requiring all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, becoming the first county agency to mandate the shot.
The Howard County Board of Health on Monday approved the new policy, which says employees who don't comply will be placed on unpaid leave until their employment status is determined by the department.
James Vest, health department administrator, said the department has been developing the policy for around five months, but decided to go forward with the mandate this month as new COVID cases have skyrocketed due to the more transmissible delta variant.
"We just felt like it was important for the public to come into our clinic and know that everybody has been vaccinated," he said.
Vest said the vast majority of employees have already been vaccinated, but there are a few part-time workers who have yet to get a shot. The department employs people who work in the COVID testing site on Bell Street and others who administer vaccines.
He said the department is also looking to hire some new workers, and they want a policy in place informing people upfront they need to be vaccinated to be employed by the department.
County Health Officer Dr. Emily Backer said the vaccine mandate is the right move for the department, considering its job is to promote the health of the community.
"If people are going to come to us for vaccines, they should feel confident that we're not going to expose them to COVID," she said. "We just feel like everyone at the health department needs to be vaccinated, because that's what we stand for."
The policy approved Tuesday allows for exceptions based on medical reasons or because of a "sincerely held religious belief." Workers have seven days after receiving the policy to get vaccinated and provide proof they received it.
The department's mandate comes after President Joe Biden last week ordered sweeping new federal vaccine requirements for as many as 100 million Americans — private-sector employees as well as health care workers and federal contractors — in an all-out effort to curb the surging COVID-19 delta variant.
The expansive rules mandate that all employers with more than 100 workers require them to be vaccinated or test for the virus weekly, affecting about 80 million Americans. And the roughly 17 million workers at health facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid also will have to be fully vaccinated.
Biden is also requiring vaccination for employees of the executive branch and contractors who do business with the federal government — with no option to test out. That covers several million more workers.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @carsongerber1.