Jackson County announced Tuesday that, like California and New York City, it will require its employees to either provide proof they have been vaccinated for COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing.
The policy takes effect Sept. 30 and was imposed, County Executive Frank White said, in response to the growing number of coronavirus cases diagnosed and hospitalizations in the Kansas City area in recent weeks. He said the number of positive cases has tripled since June 6 in eastern Jackson County, and health officials are particularly worried about the dangers posed by the delta variant now sweeping the country.
“The delta variant we’re fighting now is much more contagious and requires us to act with a sense of urgency,” White said in a news release. “Science and facts show the vaccine is the absolute best way (to) protect ourselves and others from serious illness or death.”
An earlier version of this story said that no other large local government in either Kansas or Missouri has imposed a similar policy, but some are publicly considering whether to make their employees get the shots or get regular tests. A spokeswoman for Kansas City later responded to The Star’s inquiries and said city government had imposed a similar policy to Jackson County’s on June 4. But it was not publicized.
And instead of weekly testing, Kansas City employees who fail to show proof of vaccination are required to be tested every 30 days.
Jackson County officials have expressed concern at weekly meetings of the county legislature this summer over the reluctance of some county employees to be vaccinated against the virus. Those workers include guards at the jail, sheriff’s deputies, tax collectors and many others who engage with the public.
The county can’t say how many of those 1,100-plus full- and part-time workers are vaccinated, “but the last time our HR Department did a voluntary count our numbers mirrored our region pretty closely,” said White’s chief of staff, Caleb Clifford.
About 39 percent of Jackson County residents 12 and older are fully vaccinated, according to state health officials.
Appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program Sunday, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas called the vaccination rate locally “painfully low.” The statewide average is only slightly higher than Jackson County’s, at 41 percent, with 47.4 percent receiving at least one shot of the two-shot vaccines or the one-shot Johnson and Johnson regimen, according to Missouri’s COVID-19 Dashboard.
National figures are better, with 57.6 percent of the population 12 years and older fully vaccinated and 66.6 percent with at least one dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A surge in COVID-19 cases, mostly among the unvaccinated, has raised concerns throughout the public health community. Hospitals in Springfield, Missouri, and throughout the South have been overloaded with patients who have been reluctant for one reason or another to get the vaccine. By and large they are younger than the mostly older people who ended up on ventilators or died during earlier waves of the virus.
Many public and private employers have been considering whether to require that their employees be vaccinated, but have moved slowly.
On Monday, Truman Medical Centers became the region’s first medical center to require its employees be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus. Truman has 4,500 employees.
Some public employers were emboldened after New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a policy last week requiring that all public health care workers in New York City be vaccinated. He expanded the policy to all municipal workers on Monday.
Employees without proof of vaccination must arrange their own weekly tests in order to work. That added hassle may convince some of them to get the shots, de Blasio said Tuesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom followed suit with a policy requiring that state workers be vaccinated or show a negative COVID-19 test.
DeBlasio, Newsom and White are all Democrats, as is Lucas.
The Star’s Cortlynn Stark contribute to this report.