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Calif. county lifts first responder COVID-19 vaccine mandate

The mandate, lifted Tuesday, is being dropped now because the omicron subvariant BA.5 has become dominant, the county’s public health officer said



Richard Halstead
The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif.

MARIN COUNTY, Calif. — Marin County Public Health has rescinded an order that law enforcement officers, firefighters, probation officers and emergency medical personnel be fully vaccinated and boosted to work in Marin County’s higher-risk settings.

The mandate, lifted Tuesday, is being dropped now because the omicron subvariant BA.5 has become dominant in Marin, said Dr. Lisa Santora, Marin County’s deputy public health officer.

“With the BA.5 variant circulating, we are seeing that the original, primary vaccination series and one booster don’t offer the same protection that they did with the BA.1 and BA.2 variant,” Santora said.

Justin Swift, president of the Marin County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, said, “It’s about time. It never should have happened. We lost a lot of good staff over the vaccine mandate.”

John Bagala, president of the Marin Professional Firefighters association, said, “From day one we’ve been pro-vaccine but against mandates. We didn’t see them as being an essential part of the mitigation of the pandemic.

“We have some people who the mandate caused a tremendous amount of stress for,” Bagala said. “The good news is we managed to find reasonable accommodations which allowed us to retain everyone’s jobs.”

The original order, which became effective on Feb. 10, was met with considerable resistance. Public health officials ultimately relented, allowing a number of Marin County sheriff’s deputies to continue working without getting vaccinated.

“It was definitely one of the most challenging moments of the pandemic response being in conflict with our first responders,” Santora said.

The original order required first responders to receive their first dose of vaccine by March 1 and complete their primary series no later than April 15 in order to continue working in higher-risk settings. Such settings included skilled nursing facilities, long-term care facilities, hospitals, jails and congregate shelters.

The order also required first responders to be up-to-date with booster shots within 15 days of becoming eligible for boosters to continue working in higher-risk settings. The only way for a first responder to avoid the mandate was to secure a medical or religious exemption.

At the time of the original order, the county was managing multiple outbreaks in higher-risk settings, including nine in skilled nursing facilities, nine in residential care facilities for the elderly, 19 in other group living facilities, and in the Marin County Jail.

The order stated, “These outbreaks have been amplified by contact with unboosted staff, an inadequate testing cadence, and a highly contagious variant.”

While a majority of Marin’s first responders complied with the order without complaint, a sizable minority objected. A teleconference that Santora conducted with first responders on Feb. 16 was attended by more than 100 people and became heated. Some first responders challenged the suggestion that police and paramedics had been responsible for outbreaks in higher-risk settings.

Santora later clarified that it was more likely that an unvaccinated paramedic would be infected by a nursing home resident than the reverse. She said the primary goal of the vaccination mandate was to protect the county’s critical first responder infrastructure.

Santora added, however, that an outbreak at the county jail, which was ongoing at the time and had infected 43 inmates and 22 staff members, had been caused by an employee at the jail.

Soon after the teleconference, a petition against the mandate was posted online and by the next day more than 1,200 people had signed it.

On April 20, Marin County’s Public Health Officer Matt Willis said that about 88% of Marin County’s 371 first responders — law enforcement officers, firefighters and probation officers — had met the requirement. Willis didn’t have data for municipal employees covered by the mandate.

At the same time, however, then Marin County sheriff Robert Doyle reported that 29 of his 197 deputies have not been vaccinated. Eight of the deputies were seeking medical exemptions, and 21 were asking for religious exemptions.

Doyle said the county was allowing the deputies to continue working for another two weeks while their exemptions were reviewed on the condition that they wear face masks and get tested for COVID-19 twice a week. Doyle said Marin County hired an outside law firm to review the exemption requests.

On June 13, Doyle said the county allowed all 29 deputies to continue working despite not getting vaccinations on the condition that they continue to wear masks and get tested for COVID-19 twice a week.

“The county basically gave them a pass,” Doyle said.

In an email Wednesday, Jamie Scardina, who became sheriff in July when Doyle retired, wrote that while no deputies were laid off due to the vaccination mandate, eight resigned while it was in effect.

Scardina wrote that due to the resignations he has had to increase overtime hours to maintain same the level of service to the community.

“The decision to drop the mandate is a good one,” he said.

Santora said county health leaders was surprised by the level of resistance that emerged to the vaccination mandate.

“Many individuals sought religious exemptions to avoid vaccination and boosters,” Santora said. “Unfortunately, it became a protracted process that did not yield the return we were hoping for. There was significant strife caused to the leadership of law enforcement, fire, elected officials and city managers.

“All that being said,” she added, “I do believe the order was right. We saw outbreaks in our facilities. We had a tool that was known to be safe and effective.”


(c)2022 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)