Santa Clara County puts funds toward disaster service workers
San Jose-based physician Dr. Daljeet Rai, 62, was among the first in Santa Clara County to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at O'Connor Hospital in San Jose. Omicron has changed the landscape once more, with boosters now recommended. File photo.

Santa Clara County is adding scores of permanent workers who can focus on delivering COVID-19 aid to residents amid an ongoing pandemic.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to pay for 251 disaster service worker positions. Most of these positions will be added to the County Executive Office and Office of Emergency Management, and 200 will staff vaccination and testing sites. The total cost between 2022-2024 would be $32.9 million.

Since March 2020, Santa Clara County has deployed more than 4,800 employees as disaster service workers to address pandemic-related needs.

County Executive Jeff Smith told San José Spotlight the county is currently “stealing away” employees from their assigned departments to staff disaster response work, so permanent positions will help correct this problem. The county employs approximately 22,000 people.

“We don’t see the need for the workers going away any time soon,” Smith said.

“The pandemic is going to continue for a while, and we’re going to need to be vaccinating, testing and doing all the training, education and logistics that are associated with that.”

The county experienced a spike in COVID-19 infections earlier this year due to the highly infectious omicron variant. Cases hit close to 6,000 in early January, but have since dropped. As of Tuesday, the county’s seven-day rolling average is 1,922 new cases.

Many of the county’s disaster service workers have done contact tracing and logistics work in warehouses and vaccine sites. Some have also helped the county communicate pandemic-related information to residents in five languages, such as Spanish and Vietnamese. Smith noted many of these workers also provide food and case management services to unhoused people quarantining in hotels leased or owned by the county.

The new roles would mostly be paid for with funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Smith said the agency won’t provide reimbursements for employees who are moved from their current job to a pandemic-related job, except under very specific circumstances.

“In order to get reimbursements from FEMA, we need to have separate employees who are designated as pandemic responders, and that’s what we’re doing,” Smith said.

Allan Kamara, president of the Registered Nurses Professional Association, said it’s a good strategy for the county to employ more permanent disaster service workers. He noted the county was caught off guard at the start of the pandemic and pulled staff from their normal positions to handle pandemic-related services.

He said the county also had to drum up volunteers to staff vaccination clinics and testing sites.

“Pulling people from an already depleted department to help another department is not a good plan, so I think the county learned from that,” he told San José Spotlight.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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