As COVID-19 numbers began to decline locally, following a Delta variant that caused a spike in cases at the onset of the school year, many employers and employees are grappling with whether to institute, or abide by, a requirement to be fully vaccinated against the virus.
President Joe Biden announced in early September the largest-scale mandate to date—all federal employees and contractors must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Nov. 22. The mandate will also extend to all private sector employers with more than 100 employees, with an option for weekly testing. The impacts of that mandate, with Loudoun a hotspot for federal workers and government contractors, has already begun its trickle-down effect.
It’s coming at a time, Loudoun Chamber of Commerce President Tony Howard noted, when the job market is as competitive as ever, sparking an interesting tug and pull between employer and employee when termination in lieu of vaccination is the consequence.
“Employers are very reluctant to impose [a mandate] unless the government makes them do it because we’re in such a war for talent nowadays,” he said. “Some industry sectors really suffered [during the pandemic] and are still recovering; others are doing quite well and are struggling to find talent. You don’t want to impose something on employees that would risk any brain drain.”
Howard, like others, noted that there are several factors in play for both imposing, and abiding by, such a mandate. Most who have imposed mandates allow exceptions for medical reasons or religious beliefs. Others offer the option of weekly testing and/or abiding by other COVID-19 safety protocols for those employees who choose to forego a vaccine.
The Chamber president himself recently imposed a vaccine requirement for his 11-person staff, who returned to the office in June following a 14.5-month closure during which the work completely remotely. He also announced in late August that the Chamber would require attendees at its in-person, indoor networking and educational events to be fully vaccinated, or show proof of a negative COVID test taken within 48 hours of the event.
Howard said he was expecting much more pushback from Chamber members and even his board of directors on the policy than he ultimately received. The policy led only to a “handful” of Chamber members leaving the organization.
“In the single digits,” he said. A number, he said, that was “dwarfed by the number of folks who thanked me for adopting the policy.”
Vaccine mandates locally have not always been so warmly received. Vocal resistance was heard during last week’s Leesburg Town Council meeting, when three Leesburg Police officers spoke up at a meeting and said many officers would leave the town force if the council went through on a vaccine mandate it was discussing for town employees.
Should Leesburg go through on enforcing such a mandate—a council majority favored a 90-day timeline for complying with the mandate, with no option for weekly testing—the officers warned the town could lose a sizable portion of its sworn officers.
Officer William Butterfield said the vaccine mandate would cause the department to have an even harder time attracting and retaining good officers, at a time when police departments nationwide are having difficulties hiring employees. He noted what the town would be losing if he left town employ, pointing to all the money Leesburg has invested in him as a member of the police department’s bike team and SWAT team, in addition to other certifications.
“I think we’re all big boys, grown adults, that can make decisions for ourselves,” he said.
Both Butterfield and Officer Josh Carter, who also spoke against the mandate during the Sept. 28 meeting, declined to be interviewed for this article.
Should the Town of Leesburg move forward with a vaccine mandate—with discussion expected to continue at the council’s meetings next week—it would join Loudoun County government, which has imposed a similar mandate for its thousands of employees. Loudoun County employees will be required to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing as a condition of employment, and can be exempted if they provide proof of vaccination. Loudoun’s constitutional officers also have the option to join.
Of the county’s top 10 largest employers, at least seven have mandated COVID-19 vaccines for their employees or are subject to Biden’s federal mandate. Included in that number is the county’s largest healthcare provider, Inova Health System, which was the first hospital system in the commonwealth to mandate vaccines for its employees.
All of the healthcare system’s employees, including its contractors and remote workers, had to have their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 1 and their second dose by Oct. 1, according to hospital spokesperson Renee Brohard. Of the healthcare system’s thousands of employees throughout the region, 89 chose not to comply with the requirement and were terminated, she said. That number represents 0.4% of the system’s workforce. There was no option for employees to receive weekly testing in lieu of a vaccine.
Fellow Loudoun hospital system HCA StoneSprings has not mandated vaccines for its employees, although many of them have voluntarily opted to be vaccinated, said Suzanne Kelly, StoneSprings Hospital’s director of marketing and communications.
“While at this time StoneSprings Hospital has not required its colleagues to be vaccinated for COVID-19, the majority of StoneSprings Hospital colleagues are fully vaccinated. StoneSprings Hospital helps ensure a safe environment by following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Inside our hospitals and other care settings, we continue to have universal protections in place requiring all staff in all areas to wear masks regardless of vaccination status. That includes requiring them to wear all recommended PPE, including N95 respirators,when caring for those with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infection. In our non-care settings, we require unvaccinated staff to wear a mask,” Kelly said in a prepared statement.
The county, for its part, has expanded its twice-a-month COVID-19 testing events to weekly, beginning Tuesday, Oct. 12.
The drive-through events are scheduled for Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at alternating locations across the county.
“I encourage anyone who thinks they may have been exposed to COVID-19 to get evaluated and tested promptly, either privately or through one of the county’s testing events,” Loudoun County Health Director Dr. David Goodfriend said. “You should get tested if you are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue and a new loss of taste or smell or if you have been potentially exposed to someone with COVID-19, regardless of their vaccination status.”
Goodfriend advised that while waiting for COVID-19 test results, “you should stay home and away from others if you have symptoms of COVID-19, regardless of your vaccination status; or if you have had close contact with someone with COVID-19 and you are not fully vaccinated.”
The testing events will move around to different locations each week, rotating among Claude Moore Park in Sterling, Philip A. Bolen Memorial Park near Leesburg and Franklin Park in Purcellville.
While, as of yet, local vaccine mandates have not led to widespread terminations or resignations, one local place of worship is providing a form letter for residents to document their religious objections to the vaccine. Cornerstone Chapel in Leesburg states on its website that it does not have an official stance on the COVID-19 vaccine but provides those with “personal and legitimate religious objections to a vaccine mandate” to use a PDF letter to provide to employers. The letter cites several Bible passages in making the case for a religious exemption.
“I am responsible to God for my body—how I treat it, how I use it, how I take care of it, and what I put into it. My body is considered a ‘sacred temple’ that is devoted to God for sacred purposes. I am to honor God with my body. It would be dishonoring to God for me to put something into my body for which I had a conscientious objection. Therefore, on religious grounds I believe I would be violating a sacred trust to honor God with my body if I were to allow the COVID vaccine to be injected into my body,” the letter reads in part.
The letter also provides a section for an optional pastoral signature. Cornerstone Chapel Pastor Gary Hamrick did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.
This article was updated Oct. 12 at 2:55 p.m. to clarify the county government’s employee vaccination policy.