Loudoun County government employees and contractors working in county facilities will be required to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 tests after a surprise vote at the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday.
County supervisors voted Sept. 8 to direct County Administrator Tim Hemstreet to establish a policy making weekly tests for COVID-19 a condition of employment for county government and library employees, unless they produce proof of full vaccination. A similar policy will be developed for county contractors working inside county facilities, and constitutional officers—for whom many human resources and payroll responsibilities are handled by the county administration—may opt in.
COVID-19 vaccines are free, and the county, not the employees, will cover the cost of testing.
“We cannot have people who are unvaccinated not knowing if they have COVID, not getting tested and not masked,” said Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large). She added: “The moment your decision impacts my body, then I Think we have to have a bigger conversation about these things, and not getting a vaccine impacts other people.”
The vote came with no advance notice Wednesday night, prompting concerns from some supervisors even though they unanimously supported the policy in concept, like Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles).
“I do have a little bit of a concern just in terms of the timing of this, not having had any notice for our employees that this was even being discussed tonight,” Letourneau said. He asked his colleagues to instead vote to have Hemstreet come back to them with such a policy for a vote at the next board meeting, but found support only from Supervisors Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) and Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge).
“This is not how we generally do business. We generally do business in a much more transparent way, and I think that’s how we should do this as well,” Buffington said.
But Randall said after similar requirements were placed on state employees, county employees should have seen this coming.
“I don’t think there’s any employee that doesn’t believe that we were going to have a policy,” Randall said. “I just don’t believe the employees in this agency who have been getting, like, literally daily information about COVID and what was coming did not believe we were going to have a policy when we got back on the dais.”
“I think that the public health and safety of a global 100-year pandemic merits the urgency of getting this done as fast as possible,” said Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian).
Supervisors voted 8-0-1 in favor of the policy, with Supervisor Caleb E. Kershner (R-Catoctin) absent. Buffington supported the motion after his friendly amendment to add a medical and religious exemption was accepted.
Arguing against the surprise vote, Buffington repeated a common piece of misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.
“This seems to just be a way of springing something on them and saying, hey, if you don’t feel comfortable, and if you haven’t already had yourself injected with this formula that we know has been rushed, then you’re going to have to gest yourself,” Buffington said.
The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, while developed quickly, are nonetheless subject to the same health and safety standards as other vaccines, using techniques that have been studied for more than a decade. The one-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine is a more traditional vaccine, using a disabled virus to train the body’s immune response, a technique that has been used in one form or another for centuries.
Today, more than 170 million people in the U.S. and more than 2 billion people around the world have been fully vaccinated with rare ill effects. Buffington has previously declined to say whether he has been vaccinated.
Randall rebuked Buffington for repeating that rhetoric.
“There is so much evidence that this COVID vaccine is efficacious and safe. It was not a rushed vaccine,” Randall said. “…The building blocks of the mRNA vaccine have been there for years. And so to say that it is a rushed vaccine could make people pretty nervous, and we need to actually speak truth and facts.”
This article was updated Sept. 9 at 6:21 p.m. to reflect the inclusion of a medical and religious exemption.