Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors

Tuolumne County Supervisors (from left) Jaron Brandon, David Goldemberg, Ryan Campbell, Kathleen Haff and Anaiah Kirk — who was not physically present but participated via teleconference — spent about four hours discussing COVID-19 and vaccine mandates at a public meeting on Sept. 7.

Certain employees in Tuolumne County government will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19, or seek approval of a religious exemption, after the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday learned it couldn’t flout a recent California state health officer’s order that applies to health care workers.

The board originally reached a 3-2 consensus at a public meeting on Sept. 7 to ignore the statewide mandate that would apply to some county employees in the behavioral health and public health departments, as well as others that interact with them.

Exactly which positions and how many employees would be affected has not been released.

County Counsel Sarah Carrillo, the county’s top legal advisor, was directed by the board at the previous meeting to review legal issues that could arise if the county government does not comply with the order. 

Carrillo said on Tuesday that she and her office staff “spent a great deal of time researching the law” and concluded the statewide vaccine mandate is lawful and constitutional.

Courts have previously upheld the constitutionality of vaccine mandates, Carrillo said, precedents dating back more than a century to a 1905 smallpox vaccine mandate case, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, which was considered and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

In addition, Carrillo said courts in Texas and Indiana upheld COVID-19 vaccine mandates earlier this year.

“As a result, the CDPH orders are lawful,” Carrillo said, “and the county does not have authority to refuse to obey the law.”

Tuolumne County is a general law county, and that means the county government must adhere to and obey the general laws of the state of California, Carrillo said. 

Because the Board of Supervisors does not have discretion to disobey the law, Carrillo said, her staff prepared a resolution similar to those crafted by other local governments that have expressed disapproval of vaccine mandates.

The board ultimately voted 3-2 to not approve the resolution, with county supervisors Jaron Brandon and Kathleen Haff in favor of it.

Brandon, Haff and County Supervisor Anaiah Kirk were in favor of ignoring the state’s vaccine mandate at the previous meeting on Sept. 7, with only Brandon saying he believed everyone should get vaccinated but that he doesn’t believe it should be mandated.

County supervisors Ryan Campbell and David Goldemberg were opposed to ignoring the law on Sept. 7 and were also opposed to sending the resolution on Tuesday disapproving of such mandates.

“People like to talk about personal freedom, but they don’t talk about their responsibilities,” Campbell said. “What about the rights of the immunocompromised, and those with immunocompromised relatives? We’re not talking about how people behave in their homes. We’re talking about how people behave at work and put others at risk.”

Haff said she was “reluctantly in favor” of supporting the resolution disapproving of vaccine mandates if the county’s hands were otherwise tied from pushing back against them.

Kirk indicated he voted against approving the resolution because he felt it didn’t go far enough and that he remained opposed to any vaccine mandates, which he believes will soon be expanded to all employers and not just health care workers.

“As things are getting better, the state is getting more strict,” Kirk said on Tuesday. “If this state continues to intrude into someone else’s body, that’s where I draw the line.”

Adventist Health Sonora, the county’s only hospital, is adhering to the statewide mandate and sent an internal memo to staff last month when it was announced, stating they had until Sept. 30 to get vaccinated or a religion or medical exemption, or else it would be considered that they voluntarily resigned.

Before the board voted Tuesday, Sonora resident Don Nessl told the elected leaders that individuals have the right to make their own choices about vaccines and they have the right to medical privacy. He told the supervisors, “Don’t let yourselves be railroaded.”

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