A resident receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a county-run clinic at White Oak Recreation Center in early January. Health officials discussed their preparations for distributing vaccine to kids 5 to 11 years old at a County Council meeting Tuesday. Credit: File Photo

This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. Sept. 23, 2021, to include a joint statement from labor union leaders. 

After Montgomery County Public Schools decided this month to implement a coronavirus vaccination mandate for its employees — with certain medical exemptions — county leaders have been deciding whether they should, too.

Currently, county employees can either show they are fully vaccinated or agree to weekly testing.

Council Members Hans Riemer, Will Jawando and Andrew Friedson all favor a vaccination mandate instead, with no option for testing.

As of Thursday morning, 77.3% of county employees reported having had at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to county data. About 6% of employees reported not being vaccinated, and 16.7% have not yet reported.

Friedson said in an interview this week that he strongly believes the county should adopt a vaccination mandate, because county residents should expect that their health is not at risk when interacting with county employees.

“I think if we’re going to have to ask county residents to be vaccinated … we should be leading with the power of our example, and not just the example of our power,” he said.

Friedson’s remarks aligned with comments by Riemer and Jawando, who called for a mandate during last week’s County Council meeting.

But some officials want more information before making a decision.

County Council President Tom Hucker and Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz said during a news briefing on Monday they would like to see a fuller picture of how much of the county’s workforce is fully vaccinated.

Hucker said he also would like to see the “cost-benefit” of a mandate. He added that he would be concerned if several first responders, such as firefighters and police officers, chose to leave the job because of a mandate, leaving the county shorthanded.

In an interview last week, County Executive Marc Elrich said he supports a vaccination mandate, but shared Hucker’s concerns. 

MCPS has provided a good model, Elrich said, but it also has substitute teachers who can fill in if there are sudden vacancies or other issues.

“I have no substitute police and I have no substitute firefighters and I have no substitute correction officers. That’s my limitation,” Elrich said. “I have no well to go back to.”

“It all becomes overtime, and it becomes a question of how many people can be reasonably expected to do what could be a very large amount of overtime,” Elrich added. “If it’s a small number of people, I don’t care. We can manage small numbers of people. Large numbers of people could be problematic.”

On Thursday afternoon, the leaders of three unions issued a joint statement about vaccination efforts and a proposed mandate. It came from Lee Holland, the president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, the county’s police union; Gino Renne, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1994 MCGEO, a union that represents thousands of county government employees in various divisions; and Jeff Buddle, the president of the Montgomery County Career Fire Fighters Association, the union for local firefighters.

The statement said: “Among our memberships, we have almost an 80 percent vaccination rate, we are actively working on getting the small percentage of folks who haven’t submitted their verification to submit their proof.

“Out of the small number who haven’t submitted, we are actively determining where those folks are — whether they’re teleworking, out on family or medical leave, or resisting the request for other reasons and determining who will not be returning to the workplace anytime soon.

“We focus on continuing to work with the county on providing access to vaccinations and testing for employees. This approach is working. We will continue with our approach and we’re confident that we can get the county workforce to a place where we won’t have to draw an unnecessary line in the sand that will result in a counterproductive conflict between the workforce and the employer.”

Friedson said county employees should do the right thing and get vaccinated.

“Just as much as I believe we shouldn’t forgo training for firefighters and police officers in order to recruit firefighters or police officers, I don’t think we should forgo vaccination for firefighters and police officers, in terms of fear of recruitment,” Friedson said. 

Dr. Raymond Crowel, director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said in an interview last week that if county officials considered any kind of mandates, religious and medical exemptions should be included.

MCPS’ decision, the uptick in cases and the spread of coronavirus variants are definitely “fueling the debate,” Crowel said.

No matter what county officials decide, he strongly encouraged residents to get vaccinated.

“My concern is that every soul that we don’t have vaccinated out here constitutes an opening for this virus to catch hold and spread again, and it keeps us in that fight that much longer,” Crowel said. 

Problems in collecting vaccination data

County employees, according to an agreement signed between county officials and labor leaders on Aug. 23, were required to submit proof of vaccination to the county by Sept. 18.

But Scott Peterson, a spokesman in Elrich’s office, wrote in an email that employees are encouraged to continue submitting their proof of vaccination if they haven’t done so yet. 

“There is no absolute deadline,” Peterson wrote. “Employees can and should continue to report their vaccination status if they have not already. Once they demonstrate that they are fully vaccinated, they would not be subject to the testing program.”

Earlier this week, Hucker and Albornoz told reporters there were multiple reasons why many employees haven’t reported their vaccination status. They might have missed the notice to report it, haven’t found the time or had difficulty uploading and downloading the necessary documentation, they said. 

Hucker said county officials need to work with labor partners if they want to pursue a mandate.

Albornoz said labor officials tried to head out in the field to help as many people report as possible, but it’s likely some were missed.

“If this were my parents, and they needed to do it, they may have struggled a little bit and needed some assistance in order to be able to download the information,” Albornoz said. “So some of this is literally attributed to people not knowing physically how to upload and download the information, which sounds over simplistic, but it’s true.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com