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Cambria health care district weighs vaccine mandate for staff

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The Cambria Community Healthcare District is considering a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all district employees, with few exceptions, becoming the first known San Luis Obispo County agency to formally consider making vaccination status a condition of employment.

SHOT MANDATE? The Cambria Community Healthcare District is considering passing a mandate requiring employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • SHOT MANDATE? The Cambria Community Healthcare District is considering passing a mandate requiring employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19.

The district, which provides emergency medical and ambulance services to the town of Cambria and its surrounding areas, discussed a draft of the policy at its July 27 board meeting, voting unanimously to consider it further, calling vaccinations an "ethical responsibility" for health care workers.

"I've talked to a variety of people, and consistently, they say they want [district staff] vaccinated," Board President Iggy Federoff said at the meeting.

Under the draft policy, Cambria carves out exceptions for employees with documented health-related conditions and for those with "sincerely held" religious beliefs related to vaccinations.

The board also signed off on a memo that will go out to district staff to encourage them to get vaccinated and forewarn of a potential mandate. The district is also incentivizing vaccinations by awarding employees who receive them with $100 gift cards.

"It is the unanimously held view of the board that as first responders, you have a responsibility to our community to protect residents from the potential of unnecessary exposure to COVID-19," the memo reads. "Many of the people we serve are already suffering from illness or injury that would place them at greater risk of dying should they contract COVID-19."

Cambria stands alone in SLO County in having a local health care district. The rest of SLO County contracts with San Luis Ambulance, a private company, for equivalent services. Cambria has 32 district employees, and Administrator Mike McDonough said he could not disclose what percentage of them are vaccinated.

"We're tracking that. It's delicate," McDonough said. "At this point, they have the right to choose."

New Times reached out to San Luis Ambulance to ask whether it was also considering a similar vaccine mandate for its staff, but did not hear back before press time.

Cambria's discussion took place one day after Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled a new executive order requiring all state employees and public and private health care workers to provide proof of vaccination or submit to weekly COVID-19 testing, as cases of the Delta variant soar statewide.

McDonough said that the Cambria district is working to understand and comply with the governor's order, which has to be implemented by Aug. 23.

"This thing is evolving," he said.

As the district considers a mandate, one of the sticking points is whether it has to first wait for the FDA's full approval of the vaccines. McDonough told district board members on July 27 that he's concerned about liability if the district passed a policy prior to that—to which board member Cecilia Montalvo offered a rebuttal.

"I'm very concerned about the liability with one of our community members becoming infected [by an unvaccinated first responder]," Montalvo said.

Tenet Healthcare, which owns Sierra Vista and Twin Cities hospitals, said in a statement that it will not require vaccinations for staff while they remain under emergency-use authorization by the FDA.

"We are closely monitoring trends and are making adjustments daily to ensure our staff, physicians, and patients are protected," Tenet Health Central Coast said in a statement.

Both Tenet and Dignity Health, which owns French and Arroyo Grande hospitals, said they plan to comply with Newsom's order mandating regular COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated health workers.

COVID-19 is back on the rise on the Central Coast. Between July 20 and 27, SLO County added 253 new cases, almost double the prior week's total, and one new death. Five residents are hospitalized with the virus, with one in the ICU. There are 285 active cases in the county—the most in several months.

SLO County Public Health is holding a press conference at 12:15 p.m. on July 29 to update the community on COVID-19 and discuss "the importance of getting vaccinated." Officials say the overwhelming majority of new cases are among unvaccinated residents.

On July 27, the CDC issued new guidelines asking all residents in communities where COVID-19 transmission rates are "high or substantial" to wear masks again in indoor settings. Δ

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