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Public health COVID update; commissioner opposes vaccine mandate for employees

As the case count for COVID-19 continues to climb, a Cook County commissioner denounced a possible vaccine mandate for county employees during a public meeting Dec. 21 at the courthouse in Grand Marais.

“Now I have to ask my friends and neighbors who are employees here their health history,” Commissioner Stacey Hawkins said of a possible vaccine mandate for county staff, “and then have the authority to deny them a job because of this. I don’t think that’s my right. I don’t think it’s the government’s right to stand in between a patient and her doctor. Health information is private.”

The issue of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate surfaced during a meeting of the commissioners as county officials continue to plan for possible state and federal requirments that could require all county staff to either be vaccinated or test weekly for the virus. The county’s policy on vaccination would only go into effect if either the state or federal government, or both, require the county to take action.

During a live interview on WTIP Dec. 22, Dr. Kurt Farchmin from Sawtooth Mountain Clinic in Grand Marais spoke about the comments from a local elected official and the ongoing pandemic.

“The more people we get vaccinated, the less people are going to die,” “Farchmin said. “And that’s kind of the fundamental. That’s pretty easy math as we go through this.”

Farchmin said Hawkins did bring up “an important point” when the community talks about limiting people’s rights, creating mandates or conditions of employment contingent on vaccination status.

“Those are topics that we need to weigh heavily,” Farchmin said. “But it comes up in the face of a vaccine that can save lives and a healthcare that is already basically overrun at this point.”

Joining Farchmin during the Dec. 22 interview on WTIP was Cook County Public Health Supervisor Grace Grinager. The discussion came one day after Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced that he tested positive for COVID-19, along with his wife and teenage son.

Walz said in a statement that the three of them tested positive on Monday after his son began experiencing mild symptoms over the weekend. The governor and first lady Gwen Walz remain asymptomatic, the Associated Press reports.

All three have been vaccinated, including Walz who received the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine in March and the Moderna booster in October.

Grinager said there are many bright spots in Cook County when it comes to the ongoing pandemic, including a comparatively low case count and a high rate of vaccination rate in the local population. However, Grinager said the pandemic continues to take a toll on the community, and that vaccine mandates are understandably challenging.

“It’s kind of in some ways a no-win situation,” Grinager said. “It’s hard. I get that. I get that if I were that person who felt like someone was trying to make me do something I didn’t want to do, I’d be upset. I don’t like having people tell me what to do either.”

Grinager said she remains optimistic that people in Cook County will continue to seek out boosters and first doses of the vaccine heading into the new year, and that the public health team remains available to answer any questions people have about the vaccines.

“Talking to people about vaccination involves listening to what their concerns are,” Grinager said.

Despite the hesitancy of some to get vaccinated, Cook County has consistently had the highest vaccination rate among all of Minnesota’s 87 counties throughout the pandemic. Grinager said Cook County residents have received around 2,500 booster doses as of Dec. 22. Based on the total number of people vaccinated in Cook County, Grinager estimates that 1,400 people eligible have not yet received a booster even though they could.

And while the vaccination rate has been notably high in comparison to other counties, Grinager said there are about 1,100 people in Cook County who are not yet fully vaccinated, though approximately 200 of those would be ineligible due to age, as those under five years old are not yet eligible, she added.

As the county and other employers in Cook County continue to navigate how to treat employees who opt to remain unvaccinated, Farchmin said he hopes this holiday season and moving into 2022 that people make objective decisions about a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Don’t let the mandate keep you from getting a vaccine that is going to keep you and your loved ones safe,” Farchmin said. “Don’t let the mandate take over that part of your decision making, because I’ve seen a lot of that. And it’s really hard to watch somebody not get something that could save their life.”

Below is the full interview to the Dec. 22 interview with Dr. Kurt Farchmin and Cook County Public Health Supervisor Grace Grinager.