Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Francisco Counties Urging Employers to Require Vaccines

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Etzel Rubio at Berkeley Pediatrics fills a syringe in preparation to administer a vaccine. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

Public health officials in Contra Costa, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties are now recommending that businesses require their employees to get vaccinated. The guidance comes as the delta variant continues to spread across the Bay Area, sparking stark increases in case numbers and hospitalizations.

"What we really want to do is empower businesses and say that public health is fully behind these types of requirements," said Dr. Naveena Bobba, the deputy health director for San Francisco.

The recommendations announced by health officials on Thursday fell short of making vaccines a work requirement, but health officials strongly urged businesses to push their employees to get the shot.

"We know COVID isn’t going away," said Dr. Chris Farnitano, Contra Costa County’s health officer. "The choice now is to get vaccinated or get COVID."

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Two major employers in San Francisco have already issued vaccine requirements: the city and county as well as the University of California, San Francisco. City workers who refused vaccination could lose their jobs. Labor unions and advocacy groups criticized the city for not discussing the mandate with them prior. Some argued the requirement would have an outsized impact on Black workers.

Contra Costa and San Francisco counties previously issued health orders specific to high-risk workplaces like nursing homes, jails, residential care facilities and homeless shelters. Those orders require that workers either show proof of vaccination or wear more protective face coverings like surgical masks, and get weekly COVID tests.

"This is a tool that we're encouraging all employers to consider," Farnitano said.

Santa Clara County has not issued any vaccination requirements specific to high-risk environments.

"We are monitoring those high-risk settings closely to see what their disease rates are and their vaccination rates are," said Dr. George Han, deputy health officer of Santa Clara County.

Han also specified that people who work in public-facing businesses should continue to wear masks whether vaccinated or not.

"They're interacting with members of the public who may or may not be vaccinated," he said.

Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bob Linscheid said the business community supported employers requiring their employees to get vaccinated and argued it's crucial to businesses remaining open and keeping both workers and customers safe.

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"We've been very involved in business reopening here in Walnut Creek and this entire region," Linscheid said. "The only thing that's really impacted us negatively is the unvaccinated, so it's incumbent upon us, if we're going to be healthy and stay open, to get vaccinated."

Other business groups have said they support the new guidance.

"They’re doing their job and as a business community we appreciate that," said Christian D. Malesic, President and CEO of the Silicon Valley Central Chamber of Commerce, referring to the health officials.

Thursday's encouragement from the three counties came less than a week after health officers in eight of the nine Bay Area counties encouraged their residents, regardless of their vaccination status, to resume wearing a mask in indoor shared spaces like grocery and retail stores and movie theaters.

The only Bay Area county that has yet to formally encourage residents to resume masking indoors is Solano County, which neighbors Contra Costa County.

Dr. Scott Morrow, health officer of San Mateo County, said in a written statement that the county feels strongly that businesses "are in the best position to determine how to encourage vaccination among their employees."

While the new recommendations from Contra Costa, Santa Clara and San Francisco strongly urge employers to implement vaccination requirements, businesses will not face penalties if they don’t require their workers to get vaccinated.

Health officers said that if case rates and hospitalizations continue to increase, a mandate isn’t off the table.

"We're not ruling out further requirements," said Farnitano of Contra Costa County. "But we're really hoping that some of these strong recommendations will be effective in once more flattening that curve."

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Department of Fair Employment and Housing both determined that employers can require vaccinations.

"I think this is really in the businesses' interest and showing our business community that we support them," said Bobba.

Dr. Matt Willis, Marin County's public health officer, said the county already has a high vaccination rate.

"With 93 percent of our eligible residents vaccinated with at least one dose — the highest in the state — we’re confident in our approach thus far," Willis said. "Our employers know they’re allowed to require vaccination, and we support any who take this step."

Bay City News contributed to this report.