2021 | Government

UPDATED: Riemer, Jawando call for vaccination mandate for county employees

County’s agreement with unions was vaccination or weekly testing

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A county resident receives her first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at the vaccine site on Montgomery College's Germantown campus on March 31, 2021. County Council Members Hans Riemer and Will Jawando called on a vaccination mandate for county employees, with no option for weekly testing.

File Photo

This story was updated at 2:50 p.m. on Sept. 14, 2021, to correct the deadline for when employees from the county’s unions must provide proof of vaccination.

Two Montgomery County Council members are calling for a vaccination mandate for all county employees.

During the council’s first meeting Tuesday after its summer recess, Hans Riemer and Will Jawando said they now prefer a county vaccination mandate against the coronavirus.

On Aug. 23, the county negotiated an agreement with the police, fire and rescue and general labor unions to require either proof of vaccination or weekly testing.

Reimer, who is running against Elrich for county executive, said during the meeting that at first, he thought the agreement was a good idea because it was a step in the right direction.

But now, he believes the county should follow the lead of Montgomery County Public Schools and the Maryland-National Capital Park Police with a vaccination mandate.

“If you don’t want to get vaccinated, then … we don’t want you working for us. I’m OK saying that,” Riemer said. “It’s hard to say. But I think we have to say [it], and this is about health and safety.”

Jawando agreed. He noted that even though Montgomery County is one of the most highly vaccinated counties nationwide, county officials are still seeing increases in the spread of the virus in recent months. 

The county is currently gathering vaccination data among its employees, with a deadline of Saturday.

Earl Stoddard, an acting assistant chief administrative officer with the county, said during Tuesday’s meeting that he believes no health officers would disagree with Riemer and Jawando’s suggestion. But he added that there has been no formal conversation with Elrich or labor union leaders.

Elrich said in an interview Tuesday that he wasn’t opposed to a vaccination mandate. He added that he wants to see how many county employees were vaccinated after Friday’s deadline, and how President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate would be enforced nationwide. 

He acknowledged there is a flaw in weekly testing in that people with the virus could still return a negative test, given how long ago they were introduced to it.

The initial option for union employees to get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing was drafted, in part, so employees could have time to get both doses of Pfizer or Moderna, if they chose that vaccine, Elrich said. 

Elrich said he understands that union leaders will likely stand up for members who don’t want to get the vaccine. But he was open to changing the agreement, as unvaccinated people are contributing to the majority of spread in the community, he added.

“Personally, I wish we could get everybody vaccinated,” Elrich said. “People should not have the ability to get sick and spread it to other people. … This notion of freedom has gotten so distorted. … Your right to not get vaccinated doesn’t give you the right to get sick and spread it to other people.”

Gino Renne, president of UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO, did not immediately return a call for comment Tuesday.

Lee Holland, corporation vice president of FOP Lodge 35, the county’s police union, said in an interview that he would need to know more about any potential mandate before taking a stance.

Holland added, however, that he gets plenty of emails every day from union members who want a vaccination mandate, versus those who oppose one.

“It’s a hot topic,” he said. 

Holland said he wasn’t surprised by the recommendation, given a recent decision by the Board of Education to require vaccinations, except for specific medical exemptions

“I would think at the end of the day, if you try to do it, I think you might see some police officers leave over a mandate. … [But] I’m not sure what’s going to happen,” Holland said.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, 87.6% of the county’s eligible population — those ages 12 and up — are fully vaccinated, as of Tuesday. Of the total population, 74.3% is vaccinated. 

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