NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– One of Wilmington’s largest employers, New Hanover County is aiming to attain herd immunity within the government center walls through a new employee policy. Newly introduced testing and vaccination requirements are expected to prevent outbreaks and quarantines during crises when residents need assistance most, particularly during this hurricane season.
After a fleeting “return to normal,” Covid-19 is rapidly on the rise, similar to trajectories seen this time last year.
A month ago, New Hanover County was reporting daily cases in the single digits. Now it is sharing nearly 100 new positive test results each day.
“The trajectory is the same as we were seeing before we had a vaccine, and that’s very troubling, even though we have 53% of the general population vaccinated,” said David Howard, New Hanover County’s public health director. “That impacts our ability to serve the public . . . That’s why you see a lot of organizations saying, ‘Well, it’s time.’”
Instead of resuming a work-from-home model or reducing capacities, some organizations and companies are adopting vaccine requirements and ramped-up testing. Like most leading health agencies, New Hanover County Public Health holds the position that the vaccine is the optimal protection against the virus and therefore the county has implemented a new policy requiring employees to either get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.
County manager Chris Coudriet explained the new requirements are intended to ensure the organization continues to operate efficiently while creating a safer and healthier work environment.
“If we have organizational immunity, we can be certain that irrespective of what comes our way –– daily service obligations or, unfortunately, a hurricane threat –– that we’ll have the depth and the talent to continue to run the county government,” Coudriet said.
Approximately 2,000 New Hanover County employees will need to report their vaccination status through an inquiry form by Sept. 1. Lying is grounds for dismissal, according to a county memo.
Those who choose not to get vaccinated will need to take tests once every seven days, starting the week of Sept. 9. New Hanover County will cover the cost of the rapid testing with American Rescue Plan funds.
New employees will need to be fully vaccinated within 30 days of hire, with exceptions only for federally approved medical or religious reasons. The rule applies to any job posted on or after this Tuesday.
On an annual basis, New Hanover County experiences roughly 12% turnover. It is also hiring for positions new to its organizational chart, only recently approved in the county budget.
Coudriet said the administration chose not to mandate vaccines for current employees at this time but has the right to “go further if that’s necessary” to meet the 75% threshold.
As of Tuesday morning, the county manager said he was not aware of any resignations stemming from the policy.
“I fully understand, respect and appreciate that it’s a personal choice, whether or not someone is vaccinated,” Coudriet said. “But I don’t think it’s debatable that it’s the best defense for the person and for the community at large. And it’s certainly the best defense for our organization.”
New Hanover County determined through counsel review it is legal to require proof of Covid-19 vaccination and doing so is not a violation of privacy laws or the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“People believe that we’re doing something that we’re not authorized to do by state or federal law so we need to set aside that myth,” Coudriet said. “Everything that we’re doing, in fact, is legal. We’re not violating anyone’s Constitutional rights.”
At this point, no municipalities have followed the leadership of New Hanover County. The City of Wilmington only mandates masks only the unvaccinated in its facilities, while the county enforces face coverings for all staff members and guests regardless of vaccination status.
“We’re not trying to be an example,” Coudriet said. “What we’re trying to do is do what is right for our people who work here and for the services that we provide to the community.”
As of Tuesday, just under a third of the county’s workforce is remote either on a part- or full-time basis. However, the county manager said the majority of its team members interact in person with customers every day. Just over half of the county residents are fully vaccinated.
“At 53%, from a public health perspective, we’re not anywhere near anything approaching herd immunity, especially given the Covid-19 delta variant,” Howard said.
The contagious delta variant is alarming health officials as hospitals are at risk of becoming overrun again. Howard noted the delta variant, one of several variants globally, is at least three times more transmissible than the original virus.
“The public needs to be aware that we’re going to see other variants because viruses are smart, and they change and they adapt because they want to fool us,” health and human services director Donna Fayko said. “They want to fool our bodies so that they can grab hold and make people sick. And as these variants evolve, my concern is that they could evolve to the point that our vaccines are not effective.”
Data suggests the vaccine is successful against the delta variant thus far. A small percentage of Covid-19 cases in North Carolina are considered breakthrough infections, Fayko reported. With the vaccine, a person’s body should combat the virus earlier, Howard explained.
“It reduces the severity of the illness for the person, and it also reduces to some degree, the transmissibility from that person,” Howard said. “So all in all, it just reduces the risk. And that’s what we’re all about.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, there are 1,036 active cases in New Hanover County, according to the county’s dashboard.
Five deaths occurred locally over the weekend. The youngest victim was 48, Fayko shared. Hospital patients are becoming increasingly younger, health officials have noticed.
As Covid-19 re-enters conversations and the news cycle, people are trickling back into the county’s vaccination site at Independence Mall. Fayko said the site is now seeing 100 or 150 people a day, rather than the 30 or so who were dropping in previously.
Reasonings for not receiving the vaccine range from personal beliefs to a lack of education from credible sources to apathy, Fayko said.
“They started to feel safe, which is a good thing. We did make good progress on vaccines. We just lost the momentum,” Howard said. “We encourage those folks to . . . put this back at the top of the priority list. Even if they don’t perceive themselves to be high-risk personally, we want them to do this for the community so that we can keep people out of hospital and continue getting past the pain.”
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