Driven by a surge of COVID-19 cases, state and local governments are feeling the weight of healthcare demands and workforce absences. Cottage Grove is no exception.
In response to more than a dozen city staff suddenly taking COVID-related leave, a last-minute vaccine incentive program was presented to city councilors to be added to the agenda during a council meeting on Aug. 23.
While a majority of the council voted to add the item, a lone dissenting vote by Councilor Greg Ervin postponed its addition until a future council session, though whether it will appear on a future agenda has been in question.
The program would provide a one-time $500 incentive to all city employees who have completed or complete the final dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and produce verification by 5 p.m., Oct. 8, 2021, or 5 p.m. on the day before any vaccination mandate issued by any other federal, state or local government organization other than the City of Cottage Grove that covers Cottage Grove employees.
Inspiration for the program came from a similar strategy currently offered by Weyerhaeuser to its employees.
“We’d heard of other programs similar to that and we were trying to figure out how to increase the vaccination rates among our staff to make sure that we maintain the ability to perform the functions that we need to perform,” said City Manager Richard Meyers, who crafted the plan with Mayor Jeff Gowing.
Under the proposed incentive program, accommodations would be made in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and state law equivalents, for individuals unable to be vaccinated due to disability, qualifying medical condition or a sincerely held religious belief.
Upon approving the program, the payout would be retroactive for a maximum cost of $51,500 if every city employee were vaccinated, however the expenditure is eligible for reimbursement under the American Rescue Plan Act.
The resurgence of COVID-19 cases has had a significant impact on the City of Cottage Grove’s operations.
In the two weeks prior to the city council meeting, 14 city employees had been off work “in quarantine or isolation because of exposure to someone with COVID-19, a positive test result for COVID-19 and/or symptoms of COVID-19,” stated the resolution presented to the city council.
With a staff of 102 employees, the lack of employees put a significant dent in the city’s workforce.
“Things just don’t get done,” explained Meyers. With decreased staff, certain duties are triaged or stacked upon already busy employees.
The employees away from work were reported to be predominately in the Public Works and Police Department.
“Some departments within the city are 100 percent vaccinated while the two largest departments are estimated to be closer to 5 percent,” stated the memorandum.
Meyers could not speculate on the reason for such a low vaccination rate, but intimated that it was highly concerning, in particular with police officers.
The high interactivity with the public entailed by law enforcement jobs arguably puts officers at more risk for COVID than other city employees.
According to data compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, of the 264 police officers who died in the line of duty in 2020 across the United States, more than half died of COVID-19.
Chief of Police Scott Shepherd was not available for comment on this story by The Sentinel’s press time.
The incentive program, Meyers reasoned, would not only protect employees, but could allow vaccinated individuals who are exposed to return to work quicker than unvaccinated employees. The times required for isolation or quarantine from exposures, symptoms or positive tests are also significantly less if vaccinated.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that those who are vaccinated and come into close contact with someone with COVID-19 get tested 3-5 days after the date of the exposure. They are also advised to wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days after exposure or until a negative test result.
“I have been looking for ways to encourage behaviors that will help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and the variants in order to try and avoid a repeat of the more serious actions that were mandated earlier in the pandemic,” stated the memorandum, written by Meyers. “Being fully vaccinated is one more layer to improve the ability to avoid infection from COVID-19 or the variants.”
Meyers added that increasing the overall vaccination rate among city employees can have a positive impact on the operations of the city, the community and the lives of employees.
Citing the passing of HB 2818 from Oregon’s 2021 legislative session, Meyers pointed out that it is allowable for cities to create vaccine incentives to be offered to employees who have been immunized against infectious diseases for which a public health emergency has been declared and protects those incentives from equal compensation violation claims equal pay analysis requirements.
Councilor Ervin’s lone “no” vote put the brakes on seeing this program realized, but was far from a symbolic gesture or statement about vaccines in general, stated Ervin to The Sentinel.
“I thought that I needed a little more time than seeing it that day to formulate a response,” he said.
Ervin said his concern had to do with the method of decision-making.
“There’s a lot of information on the vaccine out there and I guess I’m not convinced that an incentive program is the best way to interact with people,” he said.
Incentivizing people with money, he reasoned, should not serve as a proxy for being convinced by good evidence.
“It might motivate them to do something their doctor advises them not to,” he said. “I just think that we shouldn’t be disincentivizing or incentivizing outside of good information.”
Ervin said he looks forward to discussing the item as a council if it appears on the next agenda.
“I’m always open to be convinced if it makes sense, if I’m missing something or if there’s information I’m not taking into account,” he said.
“I still think it’s valuable,” said Mayor Gowing of the program. “I chose to get vaccinated because I’m in contact with so many people. And I had a real hard time deciding whether or not to do it. … I respect everybody’s right to choose. I just wish that they would give it a second thought and reconsider it.”
He added that simply providing vaccine information to staff may have an additional benefit.
As the incentive program hangs in limbo, state and local COVID numbers continue to rise, with the Delta variant predicted to reach its peak around the beginning of October.
As of Aug. 27, 2021, Oregon Health Authority (OHA) reported that Oregon had a total case count of 273,896 and 3,155 deaths.
OHA data show that cases of COVID-19 are much more common in unvaccinated Oregonians than in vaccinated Oregonians and the agency has stressed that the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at preventing severe COVID-19 illness and death, despite breakthrough cases occurring.
Vaccine breakthrough cases are defined as instances in which an individual tested positive for COVID-19 at least 14 days following the completion of any COVID-19 vaccine series.
While breakthrough cases have made up anywhere from 12 to 20 percent of total Oregon cases week to week for the past month, OHA stated last week that to date, 5.5 percent of all known breakthrough cases have been hospitalized and only 0.9 percent have died. The median age of those who died was 83.
Lane County Public Health has reported 20,589 total cases and 196 deaths as of this Monday (Aug. 30). The latest figures show the county at a case rate of 367.9 per 100,000.
The CDC threshold for “high transmission” is 100 cases per 100,000.
In response to passing this threshold, the Lane County Board of Health issued an emergency public health advisory on Aug. 10 calling for individuals, businesses and employers to take immediate action on masking and other measures to mitigate the spread of the Delta variant through the county.
Because Lane County serves as a health hub for other counties, its 62 staffed intensive care unit (ICU) beds were reportedly full for two straight days prior to Aug. 21, nearly half of the beds filled with COVID-19 patients.
Some 96 percent of these patients were said to be unvaccinated.
PeaceHealth Cottage Grove Community Medical Center sends many of its COVID patients to Springfield for emergency treatment.
On Monday (Aug. 30), the National Guard arrived at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at Riverbend in Springfield to assist strained staff struggling to deal with the influx of COVID patients.
The service members will serve through Sept. 30, performing various nonclinical duties.
As of this week, around 62 percent of the county’s population is fully vaccinated.
The high case rates in the county tend to be along the I-5 corridor, though Florence has also seen a recent spike.
ZIP codes 97424 and 97426, encompassing Cottage Grove and Creswell, have respectively reported at least 170 and 104 new cases in the last two weeks. Each have vaccination rates of around 54 percent, according OHA, which counts those vaccinated with at least one dose.
A database compiled by The Oregonian earlier this month revealed that low-vaccinated counties typically have higher per capita case counts. Cottage Grove was listed among communities with the highest recent case rates in an Aug. 15 article.
Evidence of a spike in cases in Cottage Grove was also confirmed in a wastewater monitoring project which began in October last year. The study, a collaboration between OHA and Oregon State University (OSU), aimed to determine if COVID-19 could be detected in city wastewater and use the process as an “early warning system” for the virus in a community.
Immediate results of the testing last November detected the virus at the city’s wastewater treatment plant. Though the monitoring project shows that Cottage Grove has seen general plateau of positive detections through the testing period, there was a sustained increase in cases between July 22 and mid-August this year, with detection of the Delta variant in many of the samples.
Though the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine has recently been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Cottage Grove city staff and councilors are still weighing whether that will be enough to increase vaccination rates.
Meyers said he was leaning toward putting the vaccine incentive program on the next city council agenda, if only to prompt discussion on the topic.
Even if Meyers should choose to leave the item off the agenda, any councilor can make a request for an item to be added.
The next city council meeting is scheduled for Sept. 13 at 7 p.m.
Cottage Grove’s Wastewater Monitoring dashboard can be accessed online at: public.tableau.com/app/profile/oregon.health.authority.covid.19/viz/OregonsSARS-CoV-2WastewaterMonitoring/WastewaterDashboard.
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