Fla. county scrambles to vaccinate staff after deadly COVID outbreak
An internal examination showed that the virus impacted only people who were not vaccinated
By Ryan McKinnon
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.
MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. — Manatee County officials are dealing with a deadly COVID-19 outbreak among government employees who have not been vaccinated.
Two workers died from the virus last week, and a group of employees tested positive at Port Manatee on Monday, county spokesman Nick Azarra said.
The county shut down administrative offices early Friday and announced that masks would be mandatory once the buildings reopen. A day later, Administrator Scott Hopes reversed course, saying that masks would instead remain optional despite the outbreak.
"Visitors and employees who are fully vaccinated may return to work as usual," Hopes said in a statement on Saturday. "Unvaccinated individuals are encouraged, but not required, to follow COVID-19 prevention measures, including use of N95 or equivalent masks, which will be available at each entrance, and social distancing."
Hopes said an internal examination of the COVID cases among the county's workforce over the past week showed that the virus impacted only people who were not vaccinated.
County Commissioner Misty Servia pointed to the May 11 decision to lift mask mandates as a possible explanation for the county's quick reversal on requiring masks after the recent coronavirus deaths.
"Hopes immediately went into health protection mode," Servia said. "He took all the steps that are reasonably necessary to keep people safe, but the board sets policy, and the board did make a decision that they would no longer require masks."
Stephen Kimmel, a professor and chairman of the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Florida, agrees with Manatee County's decision to keep masks optional.
But he says the death of the two employees should be a call for those who haven't been vaccinated to do so as quickly as possible.
"I think the guidelines should remain the same," Kimmel said. "If you haven't been vaccinated, it's recommended that you wear a mask when you're around others, and ... if you can, get vaccinated as soon as possible."
For those who cannot get the vaccine for health reasons, Kimmel suggests working from home.
"The real bottom-line is that COVID is still around," said Kimmel. "It's still really dangerous, and the fact that the country is opening is not a signal that you are not vulnerable if you haven't been vaccinated. Vaccines are the best thing to have right now, and if you can't get vaccinated, then I would certainly recommend wearing a mask."
County Commissioner George Kruse said the county's mask policies are in line with federal and state guidance and that, at a certain point, people are responsible for their own safety.
"We have vaccines falling out of our pockets," he said. "Anybody who wants to become vaccinated can be for effectively zero cost. We are handing out N95 masks. We've put all of the onus of protection onto the individual people. I can't hold someone down and stab them in the arm with a Johnson Johnson vaccine. I can't strap a mask on someone's face when they walk in the door. All we can do is ask people to use their best judgment."
The challenge for county officials is persuading their employees to get the shot.
The county cannot require anyone to get vaccinated. Many county officials fear that it could be a violation of HIPAA laws to inquire about an employee's vaccination status, but legal experts have said that the districts that inquire about employees' status would not be in violation of that law.
Servia and Commissioner Carol Whitmore both said they had spoken to several county employees last week who were not vaccinated.
Whitmore said the concerns tended to be largely cultural. Others told her they were waiting until it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and some simply don't like needles.
"It's devastating," Whitmore said. "Hopefully, this convinced some that were on the fence to get the vaccine. We still have work to do. Education is power, and then they can make an informed decision."
Manatee County will offer another COVID-19 vaccine clinic for employees at 10 a.m. Friday in the County Administration Building.
(c)2021 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.