A plan to use up to $300,000 in federal funds to encourage Rochester city workers to provide proof of vaccination was put on hold as the city waits to hear how a proposed federal mandate will be implemented.
"I think we should wait for the OSHA requirements to come from the state of Minnesota," Rochester City Council member Shaun Palmer said Monday, pointing to anticipated federal requirements after President Joe Biden announced plans for a vaccine mandate for large employers. .
A week ago, 618 of the city’s 898 full-time employees had already provided proof of vaccination, but it’s unclear how many employees have opted not to report their status.
“We hear that our law enforcement officers in particular are vaccinated at a rate of about 70 percent, but not 70 percent have submitted their cards,” Rochester City Council President Brooke Carlson said Sunday when asked about the rate during a forum held by the the Muslim Coalition of ISAIAH.
Olmsted County Public Health reports 78 percent of Rochester residents have received a single dose of vaccine, compared to 70.3 percent countywide and 60.6 percent statewide.
Among residents 16 and older, the rate for at least one dose increases to 95 percent in the city and 85.3 percent in the county.
Carlson said vaccination rates appear to be mixed among city staff.
“Some departments have incredibly high rates of vaccination, and some are a little bit lower,” she said, adding that the incentive being voted on Monday night could help provide a clearer picture about vaccination at City Hall.
The city has been offering staff time off to be vaccinated, as well as added sick leave if they have ill effects from the shots. In return, staff members are asked to provide proof of vaccination.
The plan proposed Monday night would cost approximately $330 per full-time staff member, with less used for part-time and seasonal workers.
Council members voted 4-3 to hold off on a decision.
Among those opposed to waiting was council member Molly Dennis, who said she was ready to reject the proposed plan and ask for another option.
"We don't need to bribe people to do the right thing," she said.
What happened: The Rochester City Council delayed a decision on an incentive plan to encourage city staff to report their COVID-19 vaccinations.
Why does this matter: Approximately 170 of the city’s nearly 900 full-time employees have not officially reported whether they have been vaccinated.
What's next: The council has the option to revisit the issue during a future meeting.
Council member Nick Campion, who voted to wait for more information, said the benefits of the proposal go beyond city employees' paychecks.
With the city financing its own health insurance program, he said sick employees can prove costly for taxpayers.
A report by Linda Hillenbrand, the city's human resources director, says the vaccination incentive could offset future testing expenses and reduce costs related to severe COVID cases, which she said average $80,000 per case.
Meanwhile, Carlson said council members and city staff continue to watch how COVID moves through the community.
Olmsted County and the rest of Southeast Minnesota is considered an area of high community transmission.
The latest CDC data shows Olmsted County had 404 new confirmed COVID cases in the seven-day period ending Sunday, a 40.8 percent increase.
Carlson pointed to one sign that the numbers could reverse: Local wastewater studies show a drop in numbers related to remnants of COVID excreted throughout Rochester.
“It has been predictive of where the numbers are going, but we will continue to keep an eye on that,” she said.
Wendy Turri, Rochester’s Public Works director, said the numbers were very high three and four weeks ago, but appear to be waning.
“We are not back to the low levels we experienced all summer, but the numbers are slowly dropping," she said.