As the Bay Area experiences an increased rate of COVID-19 cases, particularly among the unvaccinated population, three county health officers urged employers on Thursday to consider implementing a vaccination mandate in the workplace.
At a virtual press conference Thursday, health officers from Contra Costa, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties spoke on the current impact of COVID-19 within their respective jurisdictions, but were in unison when it came to the broader recent trends: The highly contagious delta variant has caused a surge in cases in the past few weeks and it's mostly coming from unvaccinated individuals.
"The current surge is really being driven by unvaccinated, working age adults, mostly in the 20- to 50-year-old age range," said Dr. Chris Farnitano, Contra Costa County's health officer, adding that the age group has seen the most cases since seniors are more likely to be vaccinated.
The current case numbers in Santa Clara County are far below the rate the region experienced at the beginning of the year. On Jan. 5, the county recorded 2,251 cases — the highest one-day total so far this year. Data shows a recent spike in cases. On July 15, the county recorded 162 cases, which is seven times higher than the lowest total on May 31 with just 22 infections.
"One of the reasons that this recommendation is occurring at this time is that all the various counties have been seeing a dramatic increase in cases in the last several weeks," said Naveena Bobba, deputy health director at the San Francisco Public Health Department.
The health officers also recommended that employers acquire documentation of vaccination statuses rather than self-attestations to ensure workers are following workplace policies.
For employees who refuse to get vaccinated, the officers recommended employers require medical grade masks such as N95s for the entire workplace as well as weekly COVID-19 testing for the unvaccinated. However, if all employees within a workplace show proof of vaccination, Farnitano said that "it would be very reasonable for them to unmask."
Thursday's announcement was only a recommendation and not a mandate, but the health officers reminded the public that state and federal laws allow workplaces to implement a vaccination requirement. Some major employers already have done so, including the city and county of San Francisco and smaller local businesses such as Kepler's Books in Menlo Park.
Some counties, including San Francisco and Contra Costa, have also put in place vaccine mandates specifically for workers in high-risk facilities such as acute care hospitals and homeless shelters.
But as of Thursday, the three health officials said their counties have no plans to implement a mandate for all employers or have established a specific threshold that triggers it — instead banking on employers to take the initiative.
"Our focus right now is really on encouraging employers to take that step for their own employees," Farnitano said. "They know their own workforce and their own workplace conditions and know best how to design workplace policies that will move their employees towards vaccination."
In trying to make the case for a universal vaccination policy in the workplace, Dr. George Han, deputy health officer of Santa Clara County, pointed to the financial incentive in keeping a safe workplace environment.
"While health and safety are the most important concerns, there's also a strong financial argument for business owners to get behind vaccine requirements that help their bottom line by reducing lost productivity from employees that have to isolate or quarantine or take sick time off due to a COVID case or exposure," Han said. "And remember, some people who get severe cases of COVID or long COVID may be out of work for months."
Counties across the state are currently experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases due to the delta variant after public health restrictions were mostly removed over a month ago on June 15.
Last week, Los Angeles County reinstated a mask mandate in indoor settings for all, vaccinated or unvaccinated. And while San Mateo County did not join the three Bay Area counties, it announced on Thursday a new requirement that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask when inside county facilities starting this Monday, July 26.
"We know COVID is not going away," Farnitano said. "The choice now is to get the vaccine or get COVID."
Kim McCarl, communications officer for the Contra Costa Health Services, said she anticipates other Bay Area counties will make similar recommendations to employers "in due time."