NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– New Hanover County’s Health and Human Services board voted 10-1 earlier this week to recommend county management require more than 1,700 employees get vaccinated for Covid-19.
Following Monday’s meeting the advisory board advanced its recommendation to the county manager; the county’s leadership team is currently reviewing the proposal. If the management team chooses to make vaccines mandatory, the decision likely won’t need to go before the board of commissioners before being implemented, according to a county spokesperson.
While a date isn’t set, a decision is anticipated sometime early next week. Thursday, the county manager reinstated mandatory face-coverings inside county buildings regardless of vaccination status.
With three board members absent, the health board arrived at its nearly unanimous decision following an hour of spirited discussion. Linda “Candy” Robbins cast the lone dissenting vote. Julia Olson-Boseman, chair of the board of commissioners and member of the health board, was among those in favor of the recommendation.
Chair Dr. LeShonda Wallace, a family nurse practitioner, said the board reviewed the latest Covid-19 data, which shows a surge spurred by the delta variant, a more contagious strain of the virus believed to cause “more serious disease than other variants” according to a county health presentation. Board members looked at local cases, vaccination, and hospitalization figures and considered that hurricane season has arrived –– “God forbid we have that tragedy come upon us and we need to employ disaster relief,” Wallace said.
The board arrived at what it considered the least-restrictive alternative to not getting vaccinated: Unvaccinated employees would be required to submit to weekly Covid-19 testing, wear masks, and maintain social distancing. Costs for weekly testing should fall on the county rather than the employee, per the board’s recommendation.
“After having all of that discussion, we made the recommendation that it would be reasonable to mandate that . . . employees be vaccinated,” Wallace said. “Hopefully, the county management and their team will take our consideration and make it happen.”
Under the board’s recommendation, employees with a “legitimate medical or religious exemption” would not be required to be vaccinated. It also suggested employees should be required to prove vaccination status or sign an information release so their records could be accessed to verify inoculation.
Board member Dr. Virginia Adams said recent concerning data trends factored into the board’s decision. “We’ve had triple the hospitalizations. So that’s concerning,” she said. “What do we need to do to get ahead of it, from a public health perspective?”
A presentation shared at the Aug. 2 meeting shows 54 people are hospitalized in New Hanover County with the virus, 22 being county residents. At the beginning of July, less than five Covid-19 patients were being checked in a week.
New Hanover has 641 active cases with a 6.3% daily positivity rate, which has gone up over the last month as well. At the beginning of July, the county had fewer than 100 active cases.
Nearly 180 county residents have died in total; 87% were older than 65.
This week 111 are hospitalized in the southeast region (including New Hanover, Brunswick, Columbus, Bladen, Pender, Duplin, and Onslow counties) –– compared to 16 early last month. Statewide, hospitalizations are up 325% over the same timeframe.
Health officials repeatedly attribute an overwhelming majority of hospitalizations are occurring among the unvaccinated.
“We are seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases and inpatient hospitalizations in southeastern North Carolina,” a Novant health spokesperson wrote in an email. “If current trends continue, we are on track to match or exceed the surge of COVID-19 cases our hospitals saw earlier this year.”
Adams said the board discussed balancing the need to protect both individuals and the general public to the greatest extent possible. “The whole idea is to protect the public and to also protect the employees,” she said. Vaccines protect both the individual that receives them and those they come in contact with: “It keeps you from spreading it to other people,” Adams said. “I’ve taken care of people in an ICU. That’s not fun.”
Monday’s decision had similarities to a recent county vaping rule, which originated from the health board, where board members were confronted with the intersection of individual rights and public health. “I respect personal rights, I don’t have a problem with that,” Adams said. “But personal rights can’t infringe upon everybody else’s rights either.”
About 53% of New Hanover County residents are fully vaccinated, slightly higher than the state vaccination rate of 47%, according to the latest state data.
Not all county employees are comfortable with the requirement or the proposed testing accommodation. After the county manager shared an update on the possibility of requiring mandated vaccinations or weekly Covid-19 testing Tuesday, an employee in the county tax office reached out and informed their superiors they would not consent to either and fully understood the ramifications. A superior responded, “you are not alone.”
Rep. Charlie Miller, whose district includes the southern portion of New Hanover County, was among dozens of members of the House who signed a letter Thursday addressed to health executives (including Novant’s), asking them to drop mandatory vaccinations.
View the health board’s Aug. 2 letter addressed to the county manager below:
Send tips and comments to Johanna F. Still at firstname.lastname@example.org