County to give paid leave, bonuses to vaccinated staff
NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County issued changes to its Covid-19 policies for county employees Monday. Leadership has made the decision to cease weekly testing for unvaccinated staff members at the government center and grant awards to the vaccinated.
Those who are inoculated as of Jan. 31 will receive two days’ worth of paid leave or cash bonuses, while their unvaccinated co-workers must continue to wear a mask.
Back in August, New Hanover County outlined its Covid-19 vaccine policy for the first time, requiring all unvaccinated staff to undergo testing and any new hires to be vaccinated. Its goal was for at least three-quarters of the organization to be inoculated by Oct. 1.
“We established the 75% goal to help ensure continuity of our operations, and I believe it has helped to ensure we could and can keep our doors open and continue to serve the community,” County Manager Chris Coudriet said in a message to employees this week.
As of Feb. 1, the county has surpassed its goal. It is reporting a near 87% vaccination rate among its active 1,971-person staff. Comparatively, about 62% of New Hanover County’s population is vaccinated, and a little over a third of residents have obtained a booster or extra dose.
Since September, employees who were unvaccinated have had to submit to once-a-week testing. The cost of the program was covered by federal Covid-19 relief funding. New Hanover County received around $45 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, but it was unclear as of press how much exactly was doled out for the tests. (Port City Daily will update this article when and if that information becomes available.)
Coudriet said, of 176 employees tested for Covid-19 each week, an average of seven positive results would come back. However, the majority of those workers were already out of the office with symptoms.
“[T]he test merely confirmed what they already suspected,” he continued. “So, the testing no longer appears to be a way to screen and slow the spread – it had really become a tool that unvaccinated employees could use and know if they were in fact positive or not.”
Employees who are fully vaccinated — meaning, they got two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or one Johnson & Johnson shot — as of Monday will be rewarded with 16 hours of time off. Those who are not eligible for benefits will get $75 bonuses. The county is estimating the payouts will cost under $9,000, but the total amount is still to be determined.
In his message to staff, Coudriet explained the bonus or additional leave is a way to recognize staff who had taken an “important step” to protect themselves while also helping the county operations persist.
“Because you are vaccinated, you have minimized your quarantine or isolation time out of the office and increased your protection against severe illness – which helps to lessen the burden on your team and on our county,” Coudriet said.
Anyone hired by the county since the fall has been required to get a vaccination, except in the case of a federally approved medical or religious exemption.
The 13% of employees who are unvaccinated will still need to wear masks, while the restriction is lifted for others. Human resources is providing a list of unvaccinated employees to supervisors to make them aware of who should be wearing a face covering while on duty, according to internal emails obtained by Port City Daily.
The county has also taken away its Covid leave as of Jan. 24. Over the last two years, the county offered the option for employees who were exposed at work and had to quarantine or isolate. Now, staff members who contract Covid-19 must use sick or paid leave (which accrues), take off without pay, or arrange with their supervisor to work from home.
The policy revisions come as Covid-19 transmission rates remain high and it’s become increasingly difficult to pinpoint sources of exposure. Local health officials are predicting a plateau and possible decline in cases within the coming weeks, but in the past 14 days, just over 5,650 new cases were documented locally.
At least 27 deaths attributed to the virus were reported in the county throughout January, according to the local government’s latest Covid-19 update. New Hanover Regional Medical Center reported an average of 89 daily Covid-19 hospital patients on Jan. 17, and New Hanover County Schools confirmed 687 cases amongst students and staff last week, with 108 people quarantined.
“Our COVID transmission metrics here in New Hanover County are slightly higher than the state average, hospitalizations have continued to rise as a result of COVID, and unfortunately we have seen an increase in deaths from the virus over the past few weeks,” Health Director David Howard said in a news release late last week.
New Hanover County’s percent positivity rate stands at 38%. When the county first implemented its vaccine verification and testing procedures five months ago, the positivity rate was just over 10%.
New Hanover County Health and Human Services is continuing to urge the public to get vaccinated and boosted.
“The best defense each of us has against this virus is staying up to date on our COVID vaccinations, including boosters, because they limit the impact this virus has on our health,” Howard said. “Because of Omicron’s high transmissibility, it is extremely important for those who have not been vaccinated, or are vaccinated but not boosted, to get vaccinated, and boosted when eligible, as it will reduce the severity of symptoms and limit the strain on our local hospitals, healthcare providers, businesses, schools, and families.”
These recent policy changes by New Hanover County signal a shift in its management of Covid-19, as the county manager recently indicated itis moving toward a proactive, endemic approach. Now going into year three of the pandemic, the county has put $3.7 million toward establishing a Pandemic Operations Team in an effort to return Health and Human Services staff to its pre-pandemic priorities.
The county manager also nudged the health board last month in the direction of exploring alternatives to a mask mandate, which would be more centered around encouragement than enforcement.
In his letter to staff, Coudriet also noted that “the landscape and knowledge of COVID have changed” as one of his reason for suspending the testing requirement.
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