Bay Area counties urge employers to require universal COVID-19 vaccination policies – San Francisco Chronicle

The health officers of Contra Costa, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties urged all employers to consider requiring employees to get vaccinated for the coronavirus Thursday as cases rapidly rise. Officials said Thursday that almost all cases and hospitalizations were in unvaccinated populations.

A state workplace safety committee heard last week that virus cases have been increasing in workplaces across the state, as the highly infectious delta variant continues to spread.

“Workers who are unvaccinated against COVID-19 pose a substantial health and financial risk to the workplace,” said Dr. Chris Farnitano, Contra Costa County’s health officer, in a statement. “Most importantly, workplace exposures have led to serious illnesses and deaths.”

The health officials said in a release that employers can play a critical role in increasing vaccination rates by requiring the shots as a condition of employment, something the federal government has said they can do with exceptions for health issues and religious beliefs.

“A universal vaccination policy may benefit businesses because the quarantine requirements are different for vaccinated and unvaccinated workers,” said Dr. Susan Philip, San Francisco’s health officer, in a statement. “Currently, an employee who is not vaccinated must quarantine for at least 10 days if exposed to someone who tested positive, whereas fully vaccinated workers do not need to quarantine unless they have symptoms.”

San Francisco’s two largest employers, UCSF and the city and county, already require all employees to be vaccinated said Dr. Naveena Bobba, deputy director of health at the S.F. Department of Public Health, during a press conference Thursday.

In May Santa Clara County began requiring that all employers there determine the vaccination status of every worker and contractor, a rule that was rolled back in June.

The State Department of Industrial Relations, which is responsible for ensuring workplace safety across California, did not immediately respond to questions about whether it recommended vaccines in the workplace or not.

The standards board for the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, loosened workplace rules last month designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Those updated rules allow for employees to self-attest they’ve been vaccinated, something the health officers argued against Thursday, saying it was better for employers to document that a person has been vaccinated.

In line with the state’s larger reopening plan, the workplace rules also allow vaccinated people to go maskless indoors, while unvaccinated people still have to wear masks. Social distancing requirements were also dropped, although employers still must have a virus prevention plan in place and provide testing if cases occur at work, among other requirements.

Local and state health officers can issue recommendations when it comes to workplace safety, but it’s up to the Cal/OSHA standards board to create enforceable rules that can result in citations and fines against an employer. That process takes time, and has not always kept pace with the rapidly evolving coronavirus pandemic.

Farnitano said during the Thursday press conference that health officers did have the authority to issue mandates in response to infectious disease outbreaks like the coronavirus, but that he hoped employers would require vaccines without a requirement.

Santa Clara County Deputy Health Officer Dr. George Han said during the conference that some employers in the county had asked for a recommendation to make it easier to put vaccine requirements in place.

The health officers said there wasn’t currently a threshold for infections they were considering that would trigger a mandate.

A Cal/OSHA board subcommittee group heard during a meeting this week about the steps other states have taken to loosen restrictions, but also what metrics they are considering when deciding if they should put stricter workplace rules back in place.

The full board hasn’t defined what those would be for California, but it will have one more chance to update the emergency rules it adopted in November and updated last month.

Chase DiFeliciantonio is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @ChaseDiFelice

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