County Leader Explains Move to End Vaccine, Testing Requirements for County Workers

Changes take effect April 4, according to a letter sent to employees

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More pandemic restrictions in the county are being lifted due to declining cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Board of Supervisor chair Nathan Fletcher explained to NBC 7 what went into that decision.

“Nine months ago, we looked at the restrictions on businesses. We saw the change in masks, we’ve seen the change in schools, and I think this is just another step,” Fletcher said. “We’re gonna continue to be mindful, continue to encourage people to be safe, continue to monitor a potential variant but it’s just another step in this becoming more of a way of life.”

Starting April 4, San Diego County will no longer make unvaccinated employees test regularly for COVID-19 and will stop requiring new non-healthcare hires to be vaccinated.

The county said it's also seeing positive trends in wastewater testing, a tool that helped health officials anticipate the delta and omicron variant surges.

NBC 7's Omari Fleming spoke with a Little Italy salon owner who said she follows county rules closely in her shop.

NBC 7 asked Fletcher if San Diego will see any restrictions return if the COVID-19 pandemic gets worse.

“We’ve never predicted the future as we’re dealing with COVID, but I think the situation is fundamentally different today,” Fletcher said. “Because of the vaccine, because San Diego has an incredibly high rate of vaccination, because of the advances in therapeutic treatment there’s not the same threat to the entirety of the healthcare system which means we now treat this more like we treat other respiratory viruses.”

The county implemented its vaccine requirement for employees last August, and in October voted 3-2 in favor of requiring vaccination for new hires.

Pandemic-related restrictions have also created hostile and contentious debates at county council meetings.

“We were in an incredibly difficult situation and we had to make incredibly difficult decisions,” Fletcher said. “Every choice we made during COVID, we had a bad option and a worse option and so we took the bad option. Not because it was good but because the only other thing we could do was worse and we didn’t back down and I’ll forever defend our approach. We did the best we could with the information we had, and the results show we save lives.”

San Diego County employs a little more than 17,000 people, according to a spokesperson, including nearly 4,700 deputies.

"The numbers for metrics are trending in the right direction, and we are in a much better place than we've been in many months," Wilma J. Wooten, M.D., M.P.H., County public health officer, said in the letter. "We'll continue to closely monitor virus activity in the region and take steps as needed to protect the public and our workforce."

Interim Sheriff Anthony Ray told NBC 7 the county's policy did cost his department some deputies.

"We've had a handful that left the department because of [the requirement]," Ray said.

"I mean, the majority of people understand why we're doing what we're doing. We're trying to create a safe environment. So, we've only lost a handful, but that's I think commensurate with all the other agencies in the region."

He called the policy change a good thing that will help the hiring process and the day-to-day operations of his department.

"It'll save a little bit of time and an awful lot of documentation on the backside," he said. "So, it'll make our job a little bit easier and the people, I think, will enjoy not having it done. It's very positive."

Experts at UC San Diego have played a big role in advising the county on public health safety measures. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Christopher Longhurst gave county administrators credit for adapting to the latest data, now and throughout the pandemic, and said the latest adaptation is a smart move.

"The [requirements] were put into place initially when we thought that vaccines were protecting against infection and transmission. Well, it still dramatically reduces the likelihood of severe disease. As we've seen, a lot of people can get breakthrough infections, and given that the vaccines are less protective against transmission of disease to our colleagues, rethinking some of those vaccine mandates makes some sense," Dr. Longhurst said.

Longhurst said he expects a trickle-down effect from the county endings its requirement and anticipates similar changes at the state and federal levels, too.

"We have seen, of course, that when the county does something, understandably, a lot of smaller or private businesses follow suit with what they do," Longhurst said.

That's the case with the Little Italy salon owner, despite it costing her some of her employees.

"I'm a rule follower," Rebecca Hyde Edwards said. "I lost a few people that were like, 'I'm going to go work where it's, 'Do your thing.' And so it's like, yeah, go, do your thing because that's not my thing.'"

Using county rules as her North Star, Edwards said she strongly advised her employees to get vaccinated, but didn't require it, but did require masks.

The city of San Diego its vaccine mandate for employees will remain in effect. On Monday, the city said it reached 90% vaccination status among city workers, allowing it to grant personal exemption requests to nearly 800 unvaccinated employees.

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