Santa Clara County wants employers to require vaccines for employees
Emergency medicine physician Mark Penner prepares to receive the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at O'Connor Hospital in San Jose by holding up his sleeve. File photo by Vicente Vera.

Health officers from three Bay Area counties announced Thursday that they want all employers to require their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, with few exceptions.

“With the rise in COVID-19 cases leaving unvaccinated individuals at risk for serious illness and death, the health officers of Contra Costa, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties strongly urge all employers to consider implementing workplace COVID-19 safety protocols that require their workforce to get fully vaccinated as soon as possible,” said Dr. George Han, deputy health officer for Santa Clara County. “We know vaccines are the best tool we have to combat COVID-19 and they are safe and effective even in the context of the Delta variant.”

The Delta variant is now the predominant variant both in California and across the United States.

“One of the reasons this recommendation is occurring at this time is that all of the Bay Area counties have been seeing dramatic increase in (COVID-19) cases  the last several weeks,”  said Dr. Naveena Bobba, San Francisco County acting health officer. “We actually have the opportunity now to prevent COVID-19 hospitalizations … it is urgent that unvaccinated get vaccinated.”

Most COVID-19 restrictions, along with mask mandates, officially lifted across the state June 15, however, concerns about the highly-contagious Delta variant of the virus picked up shortly after. On July 8, health officials from Santa Clara County and six other Bay Area counties recommended all residents resume wearing masks inside—regardless of vaccination status.

There is not yet an indication that Cal/OSHA, the statewide work safety enforcement body, will create an employee vaccine mandate.

Right now, California does not have any rules or laws that require a COVID-19 vaccine, leaving employers to take a more piecemeal approach. While San Francisco County announced in June that all 35,000-plus city employees would be required to get their COVID-19 vaccines soon, Santa Clara County does not have any plans for a similar mandate for public or private employees.

The University of California school system announced earlier this year that all students, staff and faculty returning to campus this fall will also be required to be fully inoculated against the virus.

Han said the local public health department gathered input from employers across Santa Clara County. Some employers asked for a recommendation for an employee vaccine requirement, he said.

“There are other employers … (that said they would) appreciate a recommendation such as this one, which is one of the reasons why we wanted to do this and come out with this recommendation,” Han said.

Silicon Valley Organization CEO Derrick Seaver told San José Spotlight Thursday that based on his conversations with his members, this is a mostly welcome recommendation.

“We absolutely appreciate and support the recommendations that came out, both on masking and now on vaccinations,” Seaver said. “The recommendation, for us, is definitely the preferable path here as opposed to mandates … Every business is going to have a different structure, a different set up and different questions legally that they’re going to have to handle individually. And I think they will be able to work through that.”

From the very beginning, businesses have wanted to do everything they could to reopen as quickly and safely as possible, Seaver said, and this recommendation is no exception.

“As this (recommendation) rolls out and as future recommendations roll out, our one ask of the health department here has been, as much as they are able, please provide our (businesses) clear guidance and consistency,” Seaver said. “I truly believe when that is provided, folks are willing and ready to help out.”

The health officers Thursday also recommended more stringent workplace safety measures than the state, including requiring paper, medical-grade masks instead of cloth masks for employees and testing unvaccinated employees for COVID-19 at least once per week.

“The California Department of Public Health is working closely with OSHA,” Bobba said. “As case rates increase and the disease states change, there are ongoing discussions what the safest work environment should be.”

As of Thursday, the rolling 7-day average of COVID-19 cases in Santa Clara County was 113 per day. According to the county’s variant tracker, 99 infections have been identified as the Delta Sars-Cov-2 variant. However, identifying variants requires a process called genetic sequencing, which is currently only performed on a small percentage of tests.

Contra Costa County Health Officer Dr. Chris Farnitano said his county’s rate of infection is between 10 and 20 times higher among unvaccinated individuals versus those who have been vaccinated.

“This surge we’re seeing is in the unvaccinated population,” Farnitano said. “We see COVID-19 is here to stay and the choice is, ‘Am I going to get vaccinated?’ or ‘Am I going to get the vaccine?'”

In Santa Clara County, 77.1% of eligible residents, or more than 1.3 million people, are fully vaccinated, one of the highest rates in the state.

To date, 1,706 county residents have died from COVID-19, and more than 121,000 residents have contracted the virus since the beginning of the pandemic.

Masks are still required in medical facilities, on public transit, in schools, prisons and homeless shelters. For any employees who are not yet fully vaccinated, employers must require and enforce masking under current state law.

To find drop-in vaccine sites, book an appointment, request a mobile vaccination at home and find vaccine safety information, visit www.sccfreevax.org.

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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