Kathleen Haff

Tuolumne County Supervisor Kathleen Haff presents her letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom seeking exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates for employees who have previously caught the virus.

Tuolumne County supervisors approved a policy on Tuesday requiring certain county employees to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or get tested for the virus weekly, as well as a letter asking Gov. Gavin Newsom to exempt people who have previously caught the disease from any vaccine mandates.

The county Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 in favor of the policy and 4-1 to send the letter, with County Supervisor Ryan Campbell — whose name is at the bottom of the letter as board chairman — the only one opposed.

“I’m not a doctor, and I don’t even play one on TV,” Campbell said after reiterating his stance that decisions about public health should be made by medical experts and not politicians. “Those are my objections, but we will serve the will of the majority of the board.”

Neither topic drew the same emotional reaction as the board’s discussion a week earlier about complying with the California state health officer’s Aug. 5 order mandating workers in certain health care settings to get vaccinated by or before Sept. 30.

The policy passed unanimously on Tuesday does not mandate vaccinations, but it puts the county into compliance with a July 26 state health officer order that requires employees in certain “high-risk congregate” and other health care settings to verify they are vaccinated or test weekly and wear a mask.

County employees that fall under the vaccination-or-testing policy passed Tuesday include those in the jail, juvenile hall, public health and behavioral health departments, as well as others that frequently interact with those affected such as human resources, facilities management, public defender and IT.

All labor unions that represent the impacted employees reviewed and had no objections to the policy before it was approved.

Though the board has discussed a potential vaccination-or-testing policy for all county employees, such a proposal has yet to move forward.

Late in the meeting, the board discussed a proposed letter from County Supervisor Kathleen Haff addressed to Newsom that requests people with “natural immunity” — or those that have been infected with COVID-19 and recovered — be treated the same as those who are vaccinated under the various state health mandates since July 26.

“Those who choose not to receive a vaccination should not be in fear of losing their jobs, especially our invaluable health care workers who have gone to extraordinary lengths to treat and attend patients during the pandemic, vaccinated or not, before these vaccines were available,” the letter stated.

County Supervisor Anaiah Kirk, who has expressed staunch opposition to any COVID-19 vaccination mandates, said he would support sending the letter and cited a study from Israel that he said showed previous infection with the deadly virus provided longer lasting immunity.

Don Nessl, of Sonora, praised the board’s decision the previous week to ignore the state’s mandate for health care workers to get vaccinated and referred to the feminist, pro-abortion rallying cry of “my body, my choice,” which has been adopted by many in the anti-vaccine movement.

Nessl, who complained that he couldn’t breathe through the surgical mask covering his face, also said he spoke to a county roads supervisor who told him 90% of his staff did not want to get the vaccine, as well as nurses at the hospital who also supported the board’s decision.

Another man who spoke and identified himself as a local business owner falsely asserted that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 75% of new COVID-19 infections are vaccinated people. A study by the CDC released Friday found that fully vaccinated people were only 8% of 600,000 new COVID-19 cases in 13 jurisdictions from April 4 to July 17.

Haff has previously spoken out against mandatory vaccinations and penned an 11-page paper laying out her case against such policies, though she clarified that wasn’t the focus of her proposed letter on Tuesday.

“This letter is not about mandated vaccines,” she said. “It’s about making those who have had COVID and recovered, and they have the natural immunity, equal in the eyes of not having to get tested basically.”

A woman who provided public comment via telephone said she disagreed with sending the letter because studies are still pending on how long natural immunity lasts in people who have been previously infected with the novel coronavirus.

County Supervisor Jaron Brandon said he would support the letter if it was first reviewed by the county Public Health Department, citing concerns about the final paragraph citing certain studies, though he ultimately approved it after Haff agreed to delete the paragraph.

Brandon, Haff and Kirk supported going against the state’s mandate for workers in health care settings to be vaccinated at the Sept. 7 meeting, while Campbell and County Supervisor David Goldemberg felt the county should follow the law.

The vaccine mandate would apply to mostly workers in the public health and behavioral health departments, in addition to support staff that may frequently interact with them.

County Counsel Sarah Carrillo said she would research the potential consequences that the county could face for flouting the state mandate and report her findings to the board at a future date, though she was unavailable for comment on Tuesday.

It’s also unclear what effect the federal mandate announced by President Joe Biden last week will have on the county, if any.

Biden’s mandate requires employers with 100 or more employees to require proof of vaccination or weekly testing. There are more than 600 people who work for the county.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 768-5175.

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