Montgomery County officials have reached agreements with three major labor unions to begin weekly coronavirus testing, but the question of whether a full vaccine mandate will be implemented remains in flux.

Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard told reporters Wednesday that the county reached an agreement with the Montgomery County Career Fire Fighters Association and has conducted weekly testing since around Halloween. 

Stoddard said the county later reached agreements with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, which is the county’s police union, and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1994 MCGEO, a union that represents thousands of county government employees in various divisions. Weekly testing for those unions started around Thanksgiving.

Previously, the three unions agreed in late August to employees either getting vaccinated or having weekly testing.

Stoddard said some of the reasons it took so long for weekly testing to begin, especially for the general labor and police unions, were settling issues on how employees could submit proof of a negative weekly test and deciding who would have access to that testing information, as some view it as part of their medical record. 

Some County Council members, however, have continued to push for a full vaccine mandate, without the option for weekly testing. They include Council Members Hans Riemer and Will Jawando, who have sponsored legislation for a mandate, allowing for certain medical exemptions. Council Member Andrew Friedson has also voiced support for a mandate.

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Riemer said during Tuesday’s County Council meeting that vaccinated employees shouldn’t have to worry about putting themselves or loved ones in danger.

“Those employees may have older family members, they may have immunocompromised family members,” Riemer said. “They don’t deserve to be in the same workplace with somebody who refuses to get vaccinated. We have an obligation to address that problem. We need to stand with the employees who care, and are doing the right thing, instead of the employees who are refusing and resisting.”

In an interview, Riemer said employees who are quarantined because they are unvaccinated and gotten COVID-19 — or have been in close contact with those who have — are causing a greater disruption than the potential loss of public safety employees.

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“We’re dealing with impacts already from employees who are refusing to get vaccinated and then they’re getting sick,” Riemer said. “I just don’t buy this argument that conceding to employees who refuse to get vaccinated brings any benefit. I think it’s extremely difficult to organize a workforce and a workplace around employees that refuse to get vaccinated.”

Last month, the County Council’s Health and Human Services and Government Operations and Fiscal Policy committees met with union leaders and county officials to discuss the legislation, but they did not take a vote on moving it to the full council. 

Council members indicated at that meeting that they were interested in adding religious exemptions, along with medical exemptions, to the legislation. But Stoddard and other officials said they were concerned about operational challenges and if public safety would be compromised if a mandate was enacted.

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On Wednesday, Stoddard repeated that point. He said that any potential public safety issues — like rising crime in Silver Spring — could be exacerbated if police officers or other public safety officials decide to leave over a mandate.

“I don’t think there’s any debate around [whether] vaccine mandates do result in an increase in [the] percentage of people participating,” Stoddard told reporters. “The question is entirely around how many employees that don’t participate, [and] can you fire [them] without there being collateral impacts?”

On Tuesday, County Council members were briefed by Montgomery County Public Schools and Department of Health and Human Services officials about coronavirus metrics, and were provided both the percentage of county and school district employees who were vaccinated.

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According to the county’s COVID-19 dashboard, 85% of county employees were vaccinated or partially vaccinated, as of Wednesday afternoon.

Jimmy D’Andrea, chief of staff for Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight, told County Council members that as of Tuesday, 95.3% of MCPS teachers and staff members were fully vaccinated.

Even though the school system has a higher vaccination rate, there would still be problems even if the county could match that rate, Stoddard said.

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“What happens to that 5% of employees that don’t get vaccinated? There are not very many programs that we operate that could sustain a 5% reduction in staffing without there being severe consequences,” Stoddard told reporters Wednesday.

County Executive Marc Elrich told reporters Wednesday that he wished everyone would get vaccinated, but it would be hard to complain about police service or other public safety services becoming less responsive, after knowing it could happen if a mandate were enacted.

He said he wasn’t surprised MCPS backed off its vaccine mandate and allowed for weekly testing as an alternative. 

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“I think the school system … contemplated life without 1,300 staff members, and realized that as hard as it is right now to teach schools and staff things, losing another 1,300 people would have been catastrophic for them,” Elrich said. 

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