Amid a debate about a strict COVID-19 vaccine mandate for county workers, Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) said Wednesday he has ordered a study of staffing levels in key agencies to see whether such a mandate would “break the system” by hindering critical public safety operations.
Maryland’s most populous county already requires county workers to either get vaccinated or provide weekly negative COVID-19 test results. A bill introduced by two members of the Montgomery County Council would require vaccination with no option to submit test results instead.
That bill is scheduled for a public hearing Oct. 19.
During a media briefing Wednesday, Elrich, who has already declared the council members’ bill the “wrong approach,” repeated concerns that unvaccinated workers facing discipline for not getting the shots would walk off the job or retire early.
The study he has ordered will probe already-tight staffing levels at the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services; the Department of Corrections, which staffs the county jail; and other departments with a high percentage of workers who are unvaccinated or haven’t declared their vaccination status.
“We’re asking critical departments … how many people they can withstand before the absence of those bodies would lead to a breakdown in our ability to provide critical services,” Elrich told reporters.
“I don’t have a problem with mandates,” Elrich said. “The problem is, I’m not just dealing with COVID; I’m dealing with running a county that relies on certain services. I’ve got to balance those two things against each other.”
Advocates of the mandate say unvaccinated county workers — especially in the public safety field — put the rest of the community at risk of contracting COVID-19 and that maintaining the option to test out of vaccination provides no incentive to get the jab.
Seventy-seven percent of the county’s more than 9,500 employees report having had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to a county dashboard. Another 6% of workers say they’re not vaccinated, and about 16% of county workers haven’t reported whether they’re vaccinated.
Among some departments, the uncertainty about vaccination status is far greater. Across the Fire and Rescue Services’ 1,300 employees, more than 32% haven’t reported their vaccination status. More than 30% of the Department of Correction and Rehabilitation’s nearly 500 workers haven’t reported their status, and nearly 18% of the police department’s 1,800 employees have not provided their vaccination status.
Elrich said the county is still working with departments and labor unions to understand the true number of unvaccinated county workers.
If the number turns out to be low enough, Elrich said he would support a firm mandate, saying “I would live with the consequences.”
But if the non-reporting workers turn out to be unvaccinated employees who might be sidelined by the mandate, “We would not be able to put ambulances out; we would not be able to provide adequate fire coverage, and, most critically, folks in the jail would be without adequate staffing. And the last thing I want is a jail where I can’t staff it at a level that can maintain the security and safety inside the jail.”