The Journal Gazette
Thursday, August 19, 2021 1:00 am


Tipping point

Recent news reaffirms need for aggressive local COVID-19 responses

EDITORIAL BOARD | The Journal Gazette

News of a vaccinated Mayor Tom Henry contracting COVID-19 should be a wake-up call for any remaining pandemic deniers. If it's not, information from Greater Fort Wayne's Tuesday webinar on coronavirus-related issues should convince local employers to act. The case for mask and vaccine requirements is growing ever stronger.

Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Matthew Sutter shared the rising case figures and said area hospitals are starting up emergency operations.

“It feels like 'Groundhog Day,' because we're once again doing the things we did in the fall,” he said.

The vaccination information from Mindy Waldron, Allen County Department of Health administrator, was not encouraging. Just 52.6% of the county's eligible residents are immunized, she said. When residents younger than 12 are factored in, the rate falls into the 40s. Regionally, we fare even worse: Four northeast Indiana counties have fewer than 40% of eligible residents vaccinated. LaGrange has just one in four eligible residents fully vaccinated.

Of the eligible school-age population in Allen County, only about 25% of students are vaccinated, Waldron said. Another 65,000 students aren't yet eligible to receive the vaccine.

Those figures illustrate a dire need for responsible community members to act.

“Not only does it work,” Waldron said of the COVID-19 vaccine, “it's our ticket out.”

Barrett McNagny attorney H. Joseph Cohen, who specializes in labor and employment law, told webinar viewers vaccine mandates are now the critical question for employers. In recent days, he said, contractors and subcontractors are finding those who hire them are demanding vaccinated workers, likely the result of OSHA recommendations released Friday.

The new guidance doesn't require employers to mandate vaccinations, but strongly recommends it, noting employers should encourage vaccinations by granting paid time off for receiving the shot and recovering from any vaccine-related side effects or by providing workplace vaccinations. Companies are encouraged to consider policies requiring employees to get vaccinated or undergo regular COVID-19 testing – in addition to mask wearing and physical distancing – if an employee refuses.

“The one thing that we can say is from a legal perspective, it is perfectly appropriate to have a vaccine mandate and require your employees to be vaccinated,” Cohen said, noting exceptions for employees with underlying health conditions or sincerely held religious beliefs.

In the case of those exceptions, employers can make reasonable accommodations by allowing employees to work remotely or in areas where they can avoid contact with other workers or customers.

“But at the end of the day, a vaccine mandate is perfectly acceptable, if you have those two exceptions,” Cohen said.

Employers are allowed to follow up on compliance by asking workers whether they received the vaccine, by asking them to sign a certification of immunization or by showing a vaccination card, Cohen said. For those who refuse to comply with a vaccine requirement, an employer can require regular testing.

“The next obvious question would be what if someone isn't vaccinated and then refuses to get tested?” Cohen asked. “What do you do as an employer? In that situation, your next step could be – if you decide – to terminate that employee because they are refusing to get vaccinated ... but also to get tested. So they are really refusing to do anything.”

Such a scenario is likely in a state where just over half of eligible residents have chosen to protect themselves and those around them. At the Indiana Law Enforcement Training Academy, a recent recruit class was sent home after a COVID-19 outbreak. Two of the recruits flatly refused to reveal their medical history, a response Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter rightly described as “insubordination.”

Indiana legislators unnecessarily complicated vaccine compliance by passing a law banning state and local units of government from requiring proof of immunization, but private employers in this at-will employment state can require vaccinations and require workers to show proof.

Mayor Henry's COVID-19 diagnosis was announced Tuesday. His wife, Cindy, also vaccinated, tested positive as well. Allen County had 262 new cases Wednesday. It's time to get serious about stopping the spread of the coronavirus and finally putting the pandemic behind us.

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