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B-N, McLean County Governments Don’t Track Staff Vaccinations

Vaccine record card
Emily Bollinger
/
WGLT
A blank COVID vaccination card located at a vaccination clinic in Bloomington.

More than 61,000 people in McLean County are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. That's just over one-third of the population.

But do you know how many of our police officers, street crews and other public-facing employees are vaccinated?

Actually, no one does.

Local government leaders say when it comes to staff vaccinations, it's "don't ask, don't tell."

Cathy Oloffson is director of Communications and Community Relations for the Town of Normal. She said town staff is generally forthcoming about getting their COVID vaccines, so coworkers can plan accordingly.

“Many coworkers have been very honest about it. ‘I am going to be out. I am getting the vaccine or I might be here, depending on how I respond to the vaccine,’” Oloffson said. “Many people have shared it voluntarily.”

But Oloffson stressed notification is voluntary.

“The reason the town hasn’t asked is because we respect the privacy of our employees and we want them to make the personal decision and not feel pressure from the town one way or the other,” she said.

Oloffson said the town encourages all staff to get vaccinated and use paid leave when they get the shots.

Administrators for Bloomington-Normal and McLean County government agree. They say they follow and enforce public health guidelines and encourage employees to get vaccinated — but mandating disclosure is a bridge too far.

Bloomington Deputy City Manager Billy Tyus: “Employees are not required to get vaccinated or report vaccination status to the city for a number of reasons, including but not limited to, privacy requirements. We do allow employees who choose to get vaccinated to do so during work hours without using personal or vacation time and encourage workers to educate themselves about vaccinations when making a decision.”

Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner: “The Normal Police Department encourages all of our employees to become vaccinated, but we do not mandate or track those who have been. We respect the privacy of all our staff and expect them to make these types of decisions with the consultation of their medical professional. We continue to follow proper safety protocols, including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), social distancing and practicing personal hygiene and regular cleaning of workspaces. Since vaccines have become readily available in McLean County we have seen a drastic drop in the number of instances where staff have been impacted by exposure to COVID-19.“

Bloomington Police Department public information officer John Fermon: “The BPD continues to follow the CDC guidelines and guidelines set by the city and/or state. With that being said, vaccination is a personal decision by the officer. The BPD allows officers to get the vaccine while on duty (in the city), if they choose to do so. They can also get the vaccine off duty (unpaid), if they choose so.”

Camille Rodriguez wearing face mask
McLean County Government
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Camille Rodriguez

McLean County administrator Camille Rodriguez: “We feel that mandating vaccinations is not the operational or cultural approach we need to take to fight the novel coronavirus. Rather, we encourage vaccinations and combine that with our established practices of social distancing, the use of face coverings, and frequent hand washing.”

McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage: “Since we do not require vaccination, we do not track how many employees get it.”

Bloomington mayor Mboka Mwilambwe said forcing vaccines on people is un-American. “One of the things that make America the country that it is that people have the freedom to do certain things,” he said.

Mboka Mwilambwe
City of Bloomington
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Bloomington mayor Mboka Mwilambwe

He said the city plans to rely on public health data to determine what steps the city should take to limit COVID spread going forward. “The most important thing for me is for us to have the overall numbers that we have from the county. I think that’s good enough,” the mayor said.

The city's civilian police review board received three complaints against police officers for not wearing face masks on the job last fall before anyone was vaccinated. The department said it addressed the issue through more robust training. Mwilambwe said he doesn't see this as a public trust issue.

“It was addressed and the police officers have been known to put on their masks, so I don’t know that we should drill down to that specific,” he said.

Are vaccine requirements legal?

Meanwhile, employers may want to know how many of their workers received the vaccine to make decisions about staffing and other COVID protocols, but asking can be tricky.

Danielle Kays is an employment attorney in Bloomington. Kays said the most frequent questions she hears from clients are can they require their employees disclose if they've received the COVID vaccine and can they simply require the vaccine.

Kays replies the answer to both questions is yes.

“Employers can ask about whether an employee has been vaccinated and by asking, that’s not a disability-related inquiry,” Kays explained. “They can also ask that their employees become vaccinated.”

Kays said the rules are the same for public and private employers. Kays said employees can seek a medical or religious exemption. In that case, employers should work with their employees on accommodations. That could mean keeping workstations distanced or continued mask wearing.

But Kays said many employers are reluctant to mandate the vaccine, noting they have to weigh public health against employees' privacy.

“Employers might prefer to be able to tell their clients and their customers they are providing a safe environment in requiring that their employees be vaccinated, but on the flip side there’s morale issues, there’s attrition issues,” Kays said.

Illinois lawmakers have filed several bills to relax or strengthen vaccine guidelines. State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, is one of 16 Illinois House Republicans who are sponsoring a ban against vaccine mandates.

Voluntary compliance

One public body in Bloomington-Normal has a good indication of how many among its staff are vaccinated.

“Our staff was just bringing us their vaccination cards to keep a record of it here, so we ended up keeping track,” said Normal Fire Department public information officer and fire inspector Matt Swaney.

Swaney said most firefighters likely turned in their vaccination cards out of habit. He said they often have to submit paperwork for medical exams and training certifications, so handing over their personal health information is second nature to them.

Swaney said 70% of fire department staff has disclosed they are fully vaccinated. He suspects the vaccination rate is higher than that since staff doesn't have to report. Plus, he said some firefighters may have at least temporary immunity after they contracted the coronavirus. More than a dozen firefighters in Normal came down with COVID in one outbreak last summer.

Swaney said the department doesn't require vaccines or disclosure. He said firefighters understand the risks because they have to live with the challenges of COVID every day.

“Obviously they offered it to first responders and frontline workers first and it’s because we are out there every day. We are still transporting COVID cases,” Swaney said.

While firefighters and other frontline workers may be more motivated to get the COVID vaccine, the general public is more hesitant. About 36% percent of McLean County's population is fully vaccinated. Vaccines now are fairly easy to get for most people. You can walk into a clinic or your pharmacy or your grocery store and get the vaccine of your choice.

Oloffson with the Town of Normal said she understands some just aren't ready to get jabbed and may never be.

“I think that’s what we are going to see as a community moving forward. People are going to remain all along the spectrum in terms of what they are comfortable with. We just have to respect that and understand that is the current reality,” she said.

The other reality is COVID isn't going away anytime soon, even as Illinois expands capacity limits for businesses, with an eye toward a possible full reopening in a few weeks.

Next week on Sound Ideas: Teachers in McLean County say they have generally been eager to get the COVID vaccine. They hope for a return to normal next school year.

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