Santa Clara County workers disciplined for lack of COVID shots
Santa Clara County firefighters are pictured in this file photo.

    A little more than 200 Santa Clara County employees are being disciplined for failing to comply with a county COVID-19 health order that targets high-risk workers.

    County officials told San José Spotlight on Wednesday that 209 employees are subject to discipline for failing to get vaccinated or a booster shot for COVID-19. The health order requires workers in higher-risk settings to get vaccinated and boosted by Jan. 24. As of Feb. 1, workers who aren’t in compliance with the order can no longer serve in higher-risk settings.

    According to the county, 171 staff at Valley Medical Center and throughout the county health care system, 22 correctional deputies in the Sheriff’s Office and 16 staff members in the probation department are all noncompliant.

    The county did not specify what discipline will entail. Officials noted the total will likely change as individuals get vaccinated or boosted. The county employs approximately 22,000 people, so these numbers are not significant as a total.

    “There has been very little impact on hospital and clinic operations,” said Paul Lorenz, chief executive officer of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.

    Firefighters in San Jose and Santa Clara County, however, are concerned the mandate will stretch their crews to the breaking point and harm operations.

    “We still need every firefighter and do not want to see anyone forced out of our profession,” Matt Tuttle, president of San Jose Firefighters Local 230, told San José Spotlight. The county order supersedes a San Jose mandate that allowed unvaccinated firefighters to continue serving as long as they test negative weekly.

    As of Wednesday, 31 San Jose Fire Department personnel are not allowed to work in higher-risk settings. Spokesperson Erica Ray told San José Spotlight the city cannot disclose any reasonable accommodations being considered for the noncompliant workers.

    “The fire department is able to maintain staffing with our current members,” Ray said. “We feel confident that we will continue to provide vital services to our community.”

    Tuttle believes any noncompliant personnel will be placed on unpaid leave. He said the department is already short-staffed, which is having a negative impact on public service.

    “Today we noticed that one of our rescue medic ambulances was shut down for the entire day due to the lack of available firefighters,” Tuttle said, adding any absences will be filled in by more overtime. “Hiring is a slow, tedious process that can take a minimum of four months for a fire academy.”

    The Santa Clara County Fire Department said in a statement it expects a total of seven unvaccinated or unboosted firefighters will be removed from higher-risk assignments due to not meeting the health order.

    “The number of personnel that are anticipated to be removed from ‘high risk’ assignments is not expected to disrupt the department’s ability to provide service,” the statement said. “Further, the department does not anticipate experiencing a critical staffing shortage due to the deadline, even when accounting for staffing fluctuations due to protected and voluntary leaves.”

    The most current data as of Jan. 1 shows the department has staffed 202 of its 244 permanent firefighter positions, representing a 17% staff shortage.

    County firefighter Kevin Rapport told San José Spotlight he is vaccinated, but can’t get a booster shot for medical reasons. Rapport contracted COVID and is on medical leave. When he returns to work he won’t be allowed on a fire engine.

    “I’m going through the interactive process to see if there’s any kind of reasonable accommodation,” Rapport said. “But the only accommodations they provided are four jobs in the office, and frankly I’m not even sure if I qualify for them. Not to mention it would change my hours, salary and everything else.”

    Rapport said the department is short on people each day to staff a couple of the fire rigs, and many people are working 80-plus hours a week. When there isn’t a paramedic available, fire engines have to rely on EMTs, who he said are less equipped to handle major medical emergencies like heart attacks or strokes.

    “I personally have not seen the morale this low since I’ve been here,” said Rapport, who joined the department in 2017.

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

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