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Government, Politics & Issues

St. Louis County Council Requires Vaccines Or Testing For County Employees

A nurse gives a shot of the Pfizer vaccine to a patient in February at a mass vaccination site in Ferguson. St. Louis County workers will now either have to get the COVID-19 vaccine or face periodic testing.
File photo / David Kovaluk
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St. Louis Public Radio
A nurse gives a shot of the Pfizer vaccine to a patient in February at a mass vaccination site in Ferguson.

St. Louis County’s employees will be required to either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or face periodic testing.

The county council voted 4-3 along party lines Tuesday night to approve Democratic Councilwoman Shalonda Webb’s bill that requires new county employees to be vaccinated 30 days after their first day on the job. If an employee refuses, they have to get tested for the virus every 7 days. There are exemptions for medical reasons or religious objections to the vaccine.

Webb’s legislation now heads to County Executive Sam Page, who is expected to sign it. Shortly after the vote, he tweeted: “We must lead the way to get past this pandemic.”

Council members Rita Days, Lisa Clancy and Kelli Dunaway joined Webb in voting for the bill. They agreed that county government needed to set a good example if they were going to encourage residents to get the vaccine.

Webb said that she felt the bill struck the right balance, especially since employees who refuse the vaccine could do so if they get testing.

“So we’re doing the best that we’re doing to compromise so that those who don’t want to get vaccinated at least get tested,” Webb said. “So if something does pop off, if there is a spread, if there is an outbreak — we can at least make sure that we’re within that timeframe so we can do contact tracing.”

The council’s three Republicans, Tim Fitch, Mark Harder and Ernie Trakas, voted against Webb’s legislation. They argued, among other things, that county employees should decide for themselves whether to get the shot without fear of their livelihoods being affected.

“I get it. You want to say you did something, anything to make others feel good for all different reasons,” Harder said. “But playing with people’s health care decisions is not what you swore an oath to when you signed up for this job.”

For weeks, dozens of people have flooded the council’s public forum section to speak out against mandating the vaccine — and the vaccine itself. Often, public speakers espoused dubious conspiracy theories or unproven or debunked information. Others contended that requiring vaccines is an affront to personal liberties.

Webb said that she listened to what the speakers had to say, but added she “had a different balance and listened to the other side — something we have not had here for the past five weeks.”

“However you want to turn and twist this bill, it is about a choice,” Webb said. “There are medical exemptions and religious exemptions. And there’s even if you don’t want to take the vaccinations, just get tested.”

Fitch asked Webb to hold her bill until his legislation that would have provided compensation or time off for people adversely affected by the vaccine was heard. Webb declined.

“We should not be mandating vaccines for employees to begin with,” Fitch said. “However, if four members of this council vote to do that and force our nearly 5,000 county employees to take this vaccine or lose their job, they should at least be offered very, very important protections.”

After the vote, someone in the crowd yelled to council members, “You will be charged with crimes against humanity.”

Days, who is the council chairwoman, warned the crowd several times to stop interrupting the meeting or face removal from security.

St. Louis County Health Director Faisal Khan [center] declares a public health emergency due to the opioid crisis at a press conference Thursday in Berkley.
File photo / Sarah Fentem
Dr. Faisal Khan, acting director of the St. Louis County Health Department, has described facing racist abuse and physical assaults at a County Council meeting on July 29. St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said he reprimanded Khan for flipping people off at the meeting, but declined to say whether his allegations of abuse were true.

Khan reprimanded

Near the end of the meeting, Page revealed that an investigation into Dr. Faisal Khan, acting health director, was completed and that he had been reprimanded for giving the middle finger to a crowd after a contentious council meeting in July.

But Page declined to say if the inquiry revealed whether Khan's statements about being subjected to racial epithets and an assault were true. In response to a question from Harder about whether Khan faced physical abuse, Page replied: “Councilman, I’ve said what I’m going to say about this personnel matter.”

“I understand your enthusiasm for this subject, but this is his personnel review,” Page said.

Fitch then asked why Page disclosed that he disciplined Khan by reprimand but wouldn’t answer specific questions about whether allegations in a letter to Days that gained national attention were true. TV news footage of Khan leaving the room, as well as a surveillance video obtained by KMOV, shows the crowd making way for Khan as he left the July 27 meeting. That appears to contradict claims Khan made in a letter which he alleged being “physically assaulted [and] called racial slurs” while being “surrounded by an angry mob.”

“How do you not address the entire incident but you will address that you reprimanded him for the only thing that we know to be true in his letter — that he flipped off the public?” Fitch said. “How do you only address part of this and then hide behind a personnel record for the rest?”

Page then said: “Well I disagree with your summary and characterization of the incident in which you were a center figure. And I’ve been able to reveal what the county counselor told me I could reveal about a personnel matter.”

“Dr. Khan was reminded about expectations, no matter what situation that he finds himself in,” said Page, who added that he felt Khan was treated poorly during the council meeting in question. “Those recommendations were shared with all county employees. And I can appreciate that this isn’t satisfactory for you. But this is how we’re going to manage the incident.”

After noting that the letter that gained national attention was addressed to her, Days said, “I think that I am at least due some sense of relief in terms of what has happened with Dr. Khan.”

“I do appreciate your words, but I will be looking for something from you later indicating what has happened in that case,” Days said to Page. “I was maligned in the letter. And I think I at least should have the opportunity to look and say what I need to say to Dr. Khan or to you. But that was very offensive to me. And the fact that we were on national television with a lie is absolutely unconscionable in my mind.”

During an interview with St. Louis on the Air in August, Khan said, “I will stand by what I described in that letter as my experience.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Corrected: September 15, 2021 at 8:16 AM CDT
An earlier version of the story said that county employees who didn't get vaccinated for COVID-19 would be required to be tested every 14 days. That was in an prior version of the bill. The bill that was passed on Tuesday requires testing every seven days. It also says new employees have 30 days to get the shot.

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