At last night's Northampton County Council meeting, Executive Lamont McClure advised that the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 has resulted in a spike of Covid-19 cases at the jail. He indicated 22 of about 500 inmates are currently infected, along with 7 of about 200 staffers and 2 vendors. "The vast majority of these people ... are unvaccinated," he remarked. "People need to get vaccinated and they need to do it now. Vaccinations save lives and they save livelihoods."
McClure noted he has offered COs who agree to a vaccine a $500 bonus. Moreover, there have been 16 vaccination clinics at the jail. But only 38% of the COs have been vaccinated."It's not enough," he said. "We need closer to 100%."
Council member Ron Heckman asked McClure whether he is considering a vaccine mandate at the jail.
Unlike a mask mandate, a vaccine mandate is pretty intrusive. I'm willing to do all kinds of things if someone asks me. But I hate being told what to do, even when it's necessary.
McClure noted that public health experts uniformly advise that there should be empathy with the vaccine hesitant. He indicated strong-arm tactics are likely to be the least effective. Moreover, the AFSCME union representing COs considers a vaccine mandate a "bargainable issue," and requested the County to provide more education to officers. So the county is now providing prison staff with CDC and state Department of Health reports concerning the vaccines.on a weekly basis.
There are also legal questions. Although the Pfizer vaccine has full FDA approval, the Moderna and J&J vaccines still have only emergency use authorization. It's unclear to me that a person can be forced to submit to a vaccine that has only been approved for emergency use. The courts will almost certainly have conflicting opinions
Assuming that this power exists or that vaccines have full approval, the next question is whether the County has the power to force its workers to submit to a vaccine. It might be able to do so at the jail, but it's really unclear to me,. The state has this kind of plenary power, but Northampton County has no plenary powers. Assuming it can make vaccines mandatory at the jail, the next question is who has this authority. I see nothing in the Home Rule Charter giving the Exec this authority, and it could be that this should come from County Council, which has the residual authority.
There are many unanswered legal questions, so I can understand why McClure is mandate hesitant to those who are vaccine hesitant. Persuasion is better. At least for now.