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‘A little bumpy.’ Mecklenburg defends its launch of COVID testing rules amid suspensions

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More details are emerging Thursday about the “bumpy” roll-out of COVID-19 testing requirements at Mecklenburg County offices, where nearly 600 employees face suspension for noncompliance.

Meanwhile, an agency with one of the lowest vaccination rates among county offices says its workers are in complete compliance with the rules. No Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office employee has been suspended or deemed non-compliant, sheriff’s office spokeswoman Janet Parker said.

All county workers must provide proof of vaccination or weekly COVID-19 testing, county officials said at an employee town hall Thursday.

Unvaccinated employees who fail to comply with weekly testing will be suspended without pay — and failure to comply for two consecutive weeks will mean dismissal, according to the county.

Mecklenburg County officials released the count of employees facing suspension due to noncompliance with the COVID-19 policy on Wednesday.

In response to an Observer question about the total number of county employees suspended to date, a county spokeswoman Pam Escobar said: “The numbers are constantly evolving.”

Suspensions started this week, according to county officials.

“It’s always a little bumpy when you do something new for the first time,” County Manager Dena Diorio said at the town hall, which the county posted online. “And we will readily admit that we’ve hit some bumps along the way. But we’re working to resolve those and make sure that we make this as seamless and easy for employees as possible.”

The unpaid suspensions will last until the employees are able to comply with the requirement, the county said in a statement Wednesday. The county has nearly 5,200 full-time employees.

Employees at the Sheriff’s Office and Charlotte Mecklenburg Library were not included on the county’s suspension list, because those agencies have separate human resources offices, according to the county.

Library spokeswoman Asha Ellison told the Observer Thursday that 34 out of 428 library employees were suspended on Wednesday for noncompliance with the COVID-19 testing policy.That’s 8% of the library staff.

Roughly 84% of library employees are vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Sept. 10, Ellison said.

And Parker told the Observer the sheriff’s office has no non-compliant employees — even though the office reported one of the lowest vaccination rates among county agencies, with 54.5% of 1,027 full-time employees vaccinated as of Sept. 8.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office says all employees are in compliance with the county’s COVID-19 testing rule.
Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office says all employees are in compliance with the county’s COVID-19 testing rule.

Many of those unvaccinated employees have since submitted approved exemptions or obtained negative COVID-19 tests, Parker said. Some employees were a day or two late submitting their negative COVID-19 tests, she said, but were not considered non-compliant.

Besides the sheriff’s office, just five other county agencies reported zero non-compliant employees: County Attorney’s Office, Office of Internal Audit, Historic Landmarks Commission, Human Resources Department and Office of the Medical Examiner.

Unlike the sheriff’s office, all of those agencies had reported employee vaccination rates of 80% or higher as of Sept. 8.

Suspension list

Some of the 600 employees facing suspension may be on the county’s list as a mistake, County Commissioner Pat Cotham told the Observer. The county is still working to get the official number of employees outright refusing to comply, she said.

Some employees may have tried to comply with the rule, but were not able to submit vaccination or testing proof, Cotham said.

Mecklenburg County held a town hall for employees on the county’s vaccination verification and COVID-19 testing program at 9 a.m. on Thursday, according to an email obtained by the Observer.

Demand for COVID-19 testing has increased rapidly across the county, culminating in sometimes “excruciatingly long” wait times for COVID-19 tests, according to test provider StarMed Healthcare.

That may have been an issue for some employees, Cotham and fellow commissioner Mark Jerrell told the Observer

Jerrell said he thinks the majority of county employees deemed non-compliant are not willfully refusing to comply. Instead, those employees may have had testing access issues, problems submitting proof, or other reasons for not complying by the deadline, he said.

“I would say the overwhelming majority of those people really care about their jobs,” Jerrell said. “And I think it’s our responsibility to find out the ‘why.’ It’s really important to understand that no one wants to be punitive. But we do want to be protective.”

And many non-compliant employees are part-time or temporary — especially at the Board of Elections and Park and Recreation Department, Cotham said. Some of those employees could be seasonal and not actively working for the county.

The number of non-compliant employees released Wednesday make up just 13.5% of active Mecklenburg employees, according to the county.

In early September, the county released vaccination rates for county employees. Nearly 70% of Mecklenburg County full-time employees were vaccinated as of Sept. 8.

That rate far outpaces the rate of vaccinations for Mecklenburg County residents as a whole — just 54% of Mecklenburg residents are fully vaccinated.

And COVID-19 hospitalizations and cases have been high in recent weeks. The prevalence of COVID-19 in Mecklenburg and across the state makes the need to get vaccinated even more important, Jerrell said.

“We’ve got to live with it,” he said. “And I think this is probably somewhat of the new normal. But we’ve got to remain vigilant to protect those people who are vulnerable.”

Employee COVID rules

In the town hall meeting, Mecklenburg County Human Resources Director Paula Woodhouse explained COVID-19 rules for county employees. The county posted a video of the meeting online.

Fully vaccinated employees must submit proof of vaccination to Human Resources, Woodhouse said. And unvaccinated employees, or employees who are partially vaccinated, must submit a negative COVID-19 test result to Human Resources every seven days, she said.

Only PCR tests are accepted — which means results could take up to 48 hours. Employees should take that delay into consideration, Woodhouse said, and get a COVID-19 test a few days before their seven-day deadline.

Any employee who is unvaccinated and does not submit testing proof will be suspended immediately without pay, she said.

And if an employee fails to submit proof of COVID-19 testing for two consecutive weeks, they will be dismissed. An employee would also be dismissed if they are suspended a total of four times due to noncompliance, Woodhouse said.

Employees should get tested after hours or on the weekend, she said. Non-exempt employees will get two hours paid for weekly testing — and only exempt workers can use their lunch period for testing, Woodhouse said.

County officials faced nearly 50 minutes of questions during the town hall.

Several employees submitted questions to county officials asking if the county would offer onsite testing for employees. And several said they worried that long lines at testing sites would impede their opportunities to get a COVID-19 test.

“We’re only in the first week of this protocol,” Diorio said in answer to a question on testing.

“So I think what we need to do is, let’s see how it goes over the next couple of weeks, see what bumps we hit along the way,” Diorio said. “And if there are things we need to do to make it easier for people to get tested will certainly take that into consideration and make those changes.”

The mandatory testing program will remain in effect until COVID-19 positivity rates hit and stay at 5%, or there’s no significant or high community spread of the virus for at least 30 days, Diorio said.

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