Cook County logo. WTIP file photo
WTIP file photo

COVID-19 vaccines likely required for county employees by December

Employees who work for the county are likely to be faced with a COVID-19 vaccine mandate in the weeks ahead, according to Cook County Administrator James Joerke.

The local requirement is connected to a mandate issued by the Biden administration in September insisting that all employers with more than 100 workers require staff to be vaccinated or test for the virus weekly.

The county currently employs 114 people, including full-time and part-time staff, Joerke said.

To date, county officials have not asked staff to verify their vaccination status, he added.

The White House directive focuses on private sector employers of 100 or more, so it remains unclear if the county would be legally responsible to enforce a vaccine mandate, Joerke told WTIP. That being the case, there is interest from county officials to explore the notion further.

“As a public-sector entity, it does not appear that this (the federal mandate) would apply to us,” Joerke said, “but as the state and other local governments are establishing vaccination requirements, it becomes more likely that we would follow suit at some point.”

Joerke told WTIP’s Joe Friedrichs during an interview Sept. 29 (audio below) that a local mandate is likely to be in place by early December, though litigation or other measures at the state or federal level could delay implementation.

In addition to county employees, the federal mandate requires the roughly 17 million workers at health facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid also will have to be fully vaccinated. This includes North Shore Health, the local hospital in Grand Marais.

Biden is also requiring vaccination for employees of the executive branch and contractors who do business with the federal government — with no option to test out. That covers several million more workers, including employees for the U.S. Forest Service in Cook County.

President Joe Biden announced the new requirements in September as part of a new “action plan” to address the latest rise in coronavirus cases and the stagnating pace of COVID-19 shots.

Joerke said during a meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners on Sept. 28 that Minnesota’s Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is currently developing a rule that will require all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure their workforce is fully vaccinated or require any workers who remain unvaccinated to produce a negative test result on at least a weekly basis before coming to work. Within the plan could also be a means of working remotely for some employees who are unvaccinated, Joerke added.

If working remotely is not an option and county employees simply opt to remain unvaccinated against the new coronavirus, Joerke said it is possible the person “would be separated from employment.”