Sonoma County supervisors pass new proof of vaccination, testing requirement for county employees

COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Moscow, Idaho. (Photo by: Don and Melinda Crawford/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Sonoma County will now require all county employees to submit proof of vaccination or undergo regular testing for COVID-19 after a Tuesday vote by the Board of Supervisors.

The new mandate, approved by an 4-0 vote with Supervisor David Rabbitt absent, adds to a list of similar orders by the Sonoma County Department of Health Services and California Department of Public Health orders.

The county previously passed the same requirement for employees in high-risk areas such as county jails, health care workers, law enforcement, fire department staff and disaster shelter workers. 

Under CDPH health orders, all health care workers without a medical or religious exemption are required to be vaccinated before Sept. 30, and all teachers in K-12 schools must submit verification of vaccination or wear masks and get tested regularly starting Oct. 15.

Effective Sept. 7, employees of Sonoma County, special agencies and districts will be required to submit verification of vaccination status or submit to regular COVID-19 testing during work hours.

"We as a county need to lead with the best practices in this pandemic," Supervisor Chris Coursey said during the meeting. "The way we get to a future without vaccines gand without masks is to use those tools right now."

Vaccine verification and testing mandates have been driven by rising COVID-19 case rates across the county and the state, along with data showing that vaccines have been effective at preventing serious illness and death.

Sonoma County is in the middle of a new surge of COVID-19, according to County Health Officer Sundari Mase. As of Monday, there were 39.3 cases per 100,000 unvaccinated residents and 8.3 cases per 100,000 fully vaccinated residents -- case rates mirroring early 2021 numbers.

Hospitalizations and deaths in the county are also disproportionately made up by unvaccinated residents -- 80 percent of hospitalizations, 90 percent of ICU patients and 99 percent of deaths from COVID-19 were unvaccinated individuals, Mase told the board. As of early August, 79 percent of Sonoma County residents 12 and older were partially or fully vaccinated.

The county is the largest local employer with 4,100 full-time employees, according to Sonoma County Human Resources Director Christina Cramer. Based on previous self-reporting, Deputy Human Resources Director Janell Crane told the board that an estimated 64 percent of county employees have already reported being vaccinated.

Though exact testing needs are still unclear, Crane said, the county has been working closely with workplaces subject to prior vaccine verification and testing mandates in anticipation of expanding the requirement to county employees.

Public comment at Tuesday's meeting was painted by harsh opposition to the new policy, with concerns ranging from critiques of vaccination and testing efficacy to alleged constitutional violations.

Others, including several county employees, spoke out in support of the requirement.

According to Sonoma County Counsel Robert Pittman, the U.S. Department of Justice released a guidance advising that employers and other state entities may pass vaccine mandates. Supervisor and Board Chair Lynda Hopkins also stressed that vaccination remains a choice -- employees may choose to remain unvaccinated and undergo testing instead.

"I am a skeptic. I am skeptical of the government, I am skeptical of the medical establishment, I am skeptical of corporations," Hopkins said. "In this case, I really do feel that I am following the best available science and data and doing what we can in an imperfect situation and an imperfect world."