MORGANTOWN — “It’s my sincere hope,” County Health Officer Dr. Lee Smith began his remarks to the Monongalia County Commission, “that someday I’ll have some good news to bring forward.”
Wednesday was not that day.
In a meeting that saw the commission approve a new vaccination policy for county employees, Smith reiterated that COVID-19 cases are once again spiking due to the Delta variant, which he called “a different animal.”
The variant makes up nearly 95% of cases in West Virginia and a similar number nationwide. What’s more, it’s showing up in younger and younger patients.
Smith said rising statewide hospitalization numbers included two children in intensive care on ventilators as of Wednesday morning.
“It’s definitely a pediatric illness,” Smith said of the variant, pointing to data showing a noticeable uptick in the instance of juvenile illness. “I think there is weakness in the case that we’re not seeing it in the schools. It’s absolutely incorrect, and here’s the evidence.”
With the surge in cases, it appears likely the push to get shots in the unvaccinated will become a shove as the emergency authorization originally granted the vaccines gets replaced with full FDA approval.
While the commission’s new policy won’t mandate vaccination, it will remove the option for paid administrative leave for any unvaccinated employee who contracts the illness or needs time off due to possible contact. Those employees must instead use sick or annual leave, or be off unpaid.
The commission will provide four hours of paid administrative leave per dose to allow employees to get vaccinated. Employees are to notify the elected official or department head under whom they work once they are fully vaccinated.
According to Smith, the county’s new policy is likely on the lenient side of what many will be confronted with regarding their vaccination choices once the expected FDA approval comes down.
“It will be, I think, that there will be many companies and institutions and colleges and hospitals that will mandate their employees,” he said, adding, “I think that it is coming. The current administration in Washington will continue to push for this. The Department of Justice has already said the employers have the ability to mandate this.”
As for the Monongalia County Health Department itself, Smith said the vaccination question has been left up to individual employees, so far.
As for whether the MCHD will mandate the vaccine, “we will cross that bridge when the Food & Drug Administration gives the vaccines full approval,” Smith said. “We’ll probably seek the approval of the board of health.”
Smith went on to say, “We support vaccination, and we believe that any business can follow the guidance of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, both of which have said it is legal for employers to make vaccines a condition of employment.”
In his remarks at the close of the meeting, Commission President Sean Sikora said he knows people are tired of having their lives constantly in flux due to the changing narrative surrounding the virus. In response, he shared an aeronautic analogy offered by his physician.
“When you take off, everybody has to be buckled up. And then you get to a cruising speed, and they tell you you can take your buckle off. Then they hit some turbulence, and they tell you to put your buckle back on,” and so on, he said. “People need to think about this whole COVID pandemic as being one long plane ride. Yes, there’s going to be times when, hey, it’s safe, take your mask off. Then, hey, put your mask back on.”