Masks, Vaccines, and Workplace Safety

August 24, 2021

By County Manager, Chris Coudriet

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an exhausting, ongoing crisis. Those of us in New Hanover County are used to encountering a hurricane or other natural disaster. But the pandemic reminds me of what one of our staff members told me early on about the coronavirus response – that a hurricane emergency response is like running a sprint, while responding to the pandemic will be like running a marathon.  

And what a grueling marathon it’s been since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization and a state of emergency in the United States in March 2020.  

Like many of your businesses and organizations, New Hanover County government continues to shoulder the burden of COVID-19, to include the emerging threat of the Delta variant.  

After breathing a sigh of relief in May and enjoying a summer of low community spread of the virus, we are now back to high numbers of new cases, the percentage of tests reporting positives above 11% (we were at 1.5% in mid-July), and hospitalizations surpassing the surge of cases we saw in early 2021.  

As I write this, the number of COVID-19 patients in our local hospital is higher than it has been the entire pandemic, the average age of patients is in their 40s and there are children hospitalized from the virus. Those are scary facts, but they are realities we must all consider as we make decisions for our organizations and our businesses. 

That is why New Hanover County has taken proactive steps to help protect the health and safety of employees and customers in our facilities, and to ensure continuity of operations for county government and the services we provide.  

We reinstituted our face covering policy for all employees and visitors in indoor county facilities, and our Health and Human Services (HHS) Board recently voted to use its health rule-making authority to implement a county-wide mask mandate for all indoor spaces where the public is invited, because of rising COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. This board is made up of diverse health experts and community members, and their advice, fact-based research, and discussion should be respected and appreciated by everyone in our community. 

The proposed rule would apply equally in all jurisdictions to public and private businesses, and is now undergoing a 10-day public comment period before it can be officially adopted by the HHS Board.  

In the interim, the board requested, and then I reaffirmed from the county administration perspective, that Public Health Director David Howard should issue an abatement order to expedite the mask mandate for indoor public places. So that is now in effect, as of August 20, for all New Hanover County.  

Masks will help provide us with another layer of protection to reduce the transmission of the highly contagious delta variant. It’s not a solution by itself though – we have to increase the number of people who are vaccinated to create a more comprehensive, layered prevention approach to combatting the virus.  

Vaccines have been proven safe and effective, and now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine for people 16 and older. So it is no longer just under emergency authorization.  

While the COVID vaccines don’t completely protect against getting the virus (no vaccine does), they are highly effective at preventing serious illness from the virus. Right now, around 54% of our population has been fully vaccinated. That must go up.  

Knowing that we must have layered prevention strategies with an emphasis on vaccines, New Hanover County recently implemented a vaccine policy for our organization that requires reporting of an employee’s vaccination status, weekly screening tests for those unvaccinated, and a vaccine requirement for all new hires (with the exception of those who have federally approved medical or religious exemptions).  

The goal in implementing this policy is to not only encourage our employees to get vaccinated to protect themselves and their families, but to ensure we are able to provide critical services despite the pandemic.  

We are striving to have as many people in our organization vaccinated as possible. We have set a goal of having no less than 75 percent of the organization immunized by October 1, which we believe will help enhance workplace safety and ensure that county operations can continue as expected and needed by our customers.  

While we ultimately decided not to mandate vaccines for current employees, a vaccine policy that includes a mandate or other strategies remains on the table as a possibility if we need additional measures to reach our goal, particularly now that the FDA has approved the Pfizer vaccine.  

The county did not come to this policy lightly. It was framed around a recommendation of the New Hanover County Health and Human Services Board to mandate all employees to be vaccinated, and we modified that to fit where our organization is today. 

I know some businesses have made similar decisions regarding the health and safety of their employees. I applaud those measures and would like to impress upon all employers that employee safety is of paramount importance.  

If you are a business owner and need assistance developing a vaccine policy or program for your organization, please reach out to our Health and Human Services team who can provide guidance and expertise to help you.  

This has been a long journey already. But even marathons have finish lines. With vaccines in abundant supply and both public and private employers taking critical steps like the ones I have outlined here, I truly hope we’re able to end this test of endurance and move forward from the pandemic, together, as a community. 

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