2021 | Government

First responders, medical professionals, others oppose employee vaccination mandate

Riemer, Jawando proposed mandate after agreement for vaccination or weekly testing

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A vaccinator prepares to administer a COVID-19 vaccine at a county-run clinic at White Oak Recreation Center in early January. First responders, union leaders and others opposed a bill that would establish a vaccination mandate for county employees, except for certain medical exemptions, during a County Council meeting Tuesday.

File Photo

Montgomery County first responders, medical professionals and other residents on Tuesday strongly opposed legislation requiring county employees to get COVID-19 vaccinations, aside from medical exemptions.

Council Members Hans Riemer and Will Jawando proposed a vaccination mandate for county employees after County Executive Marc Elrich and employee unions had agreed to a vaccination or weekly testing requirement. Under the proposed mandate, employees could get fired if they do not comply.

Multiple firefighters, police officers and others said Tuesday that the mandate would prevent employees from making their own medical decisions and would not help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages people to get vaccinations to help safeguard against the virus, particularly to prevent serious illness and death.

Before that strong opposition, however, Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard — representing Elrich — restated the county executive’s position that he isn’t opposed to a vaccine mandate, but he is concerned that it would result in first responders leaving the county. That could mean a drop in public safety services, potentially putting the public at risk, Stoddard said. 

Jeffrey Buddle, president of the Montgomery County Career Fire Fighters Association, said the proposal could lead to firing about 100 career firefighters, resulting in a “public safety crisis” countywide.

He said religious exemptions must be considered when drafting any sort of mandate, and that more medical exemptions must be considered, too.

“Employees with bona fide religious and medical exemptions should not have their beliefs silenced without any regard or consideration of such beliefs,” Buddle told the council. 

Lee Holland, the president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, the county’s police union, said the proposed mandate would worsen recruiting and retention efforts for police officers, a problem the county has faced for years. 

Nick Bonturi was one of multiple Montgomery County police officers who testified. He said he is not against the vaccine, or encouraging people to get it. But he is against a mandate that threatens officers’ jobs if they don’t get vaccinated.

Bonturi described how in the early months of the pandemic, when his wife was pregnant, he slept on his garage floor for nearly two months to protect his family. He still had to serve the public, potentially exposing himself to the virus, he said. 

“It’s become too politicized, and I don’t think I’m the crazy one,” Bonturi said. “This is wrong, unethical, immoral and dangerous. This is a very, very slippery slope.”

Amy Millar, representing United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994 MCGEO — a union that represents thousands of county government employees in various divisions — said her union also opposes the mandate.

UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO is encouraging all employees to get vaccinated, but a mandate is “an assault on our basic collective bargaining rights,” Millar said.

The County Council did not vote on the vaccination mandate bill.

During Tuesday’s meeting, County Council President Tom Hucker and other council members were concerned that a weekly coronavirus testing program had not yet been established for county employees, especially those who interact with the public. 

Union leaders and county officials signed an agreement on Aug. 23 that required county employees to either agree to get fully vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to weekly testing.

But a related memo around that time from Elrich’s office stated that many details were not yet finalized, like who would pay for testing, where it would occur and other logistics.

On Tuesday, Stoddard pledged to have a plan finalized, by week’s end, on how a testing program would work. Hucker said it is hard to ask businesses and the public to follow public health orders, when county government employees are not following health orders themselves. 

The County Council acts as the Board of Health on coronavirus and other health-related matters — including in early August, when it asked Elrich’s administration to provide a report and implementation schedule by Aug. 20 on how to get all county employees vaccinated or tested weekly.

Hucker and council members said Tuesday that they were concerned that it had been more than two months since that health order was signed, and a testing program hadn’t been established yet.

Hucker and Council Member Craig Rice said it’s hard to believe that county employees couldn’t find the time to go to any coronavirus testing sites throughout the county, whether government-run or through the private sector.

But Stoddard replied that nearby local governments have tried to make their employees get the vaccine on their own time — and a recent arbitration ruling meant those jurisdictions have to pay hundreds of hours in overtime payments.

Hucker later added that county officials have been able to stand up testing in every school countywide and other “more impressive things” when it comes to coronavirus testing.

Stoddard said the logistics of having personnel trained to administer the tests, while also having enough people to staff the police department and firehouses countywide, are still being worked out. 

“We’re obviously trying to have a program that is logistically feasible and doesn’t detract from our ongoing services. … We’ll provide you additional information by the end of this week to speak to the strategy moving forward on testing,” Stoddard said. 

Further discussion on the bill is scheduled for the council’s Government Operations and Fiscal Policy and Health and Human Services committees for Nov. 22.

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