Rochester and Olmsted County officials are trying to get ahead of an expected federal COVID-19 vaccination mandate.
“It is definitely coming, and we are prepared,” County Administrator Heidi Welsch said of an expected presidential mandate for employers with 100 or more workers.
Preparing means getting a reliable count of how many employees have already been vaccinated, and Olmsted County has used a health-insurance incentive to help track numbers.
So far, at least 850 of approximately 1,250 county employees have verified they received the vaccine.
When it comes to the city’s 899 full-time employees, City Administrator Alison Zelms said 629 had gone on record to confirm being vaccinated by Monday. The city offers time off for vaccinations, as well as sick leave for people who experience side effects.
Last month, the Rochester City Council put a potential vaccination incentive program on hold, with some members saying they want to see the federal requirements before dedicating up to $300,000 to the proposed program.
While specific requirements related to the federal mandate remain to be seen, it’s expected that unvaccinated employees will be required to test weekly.
Welsch said she suspects 200 to 300 county workers will opt for testing.
“There are legitimate reasons why people might not want to do this,” she said of being vaccinated. “It could be for medical reasons. We know we have some folks who can’t do this because of a medical reason. We have some folks who have religious beliefs that are deeply held and that have a legitimate reason. And there are also people who don’t want to submit data.”
Zelms also said concerns about data collection may cause some city employees to prefer regular testing.
Both administrators said they expect some pushback when the mandate starts, but the vast majority of feedback so far has been positive.
When the rules regarding a federal order will be finalized, however, remains uncertain.
James Honerman, communications director for the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, said the state agency is still waiting for guidance from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Once details of the federal emergency temporary standard are received, the state will have 30 days to adopt them.
Minnesota is one of 28 states and territories operating its own OSHA-approved workplace safety program, which provides extra time for implementation, but Welsch said she anticipates the state standards will mirror the federal orders.
While she’s anticipating those orders will determine whether employers must pay for any required testing, Welsch said the county has already made that call.
“We’ve already committed to pay for it,” she said, adding that she expects it will be a federal or state requirement.
Zelms said the city has yet to make the decision on who pays for testing.
How tests will be conducted also remains uncertain.
Welsch said county staff is looking intoproviding home tests to decrease potential workplace interruptions.
While home tests could be more costly than lab testing, Welsch said the expense is likely offset by limited interruption in the work day.
If the federal standards are revealed by Nov. 1, the state rules would be expected by the start of December.
Until then, much of what will happen appears to be speculation.
“All this seems unclear still,” Welsch said.