The commissioners court approved the new policy in a 3 to 2 party-line vote Tuesday, after County Administrator David Berry presented the plan.
“I think, and many others feel like keeping our employees safe is one of our most serious duties,” said Berry, who noted that 18 county employees have died from COVID-19.
Under the proposal, tests will be available to any employee who has been exposed to the virus, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated. Berry said exposed employees would not be allowed to return to work until negative test results had been received.
The county administrator has the authority to mandate the policy for all departments that report to him, but elected officials such as commissioners, the sheriff, and the constables have the option to implement their own policies.
Berry said if 100 percent of county departments and elected officials opted in, the cost for testing would be $2.6 million per month. The cost through the end of the year would be fully reimbursable through taxpayer dollars distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and partially reimbursable through the month of January 2022. In January, costs for full participation to the county taxpayers would be about $600,000, according to Berry.
In response to a query from Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2), Berry explained that after consulting with the county’s health department, they would use tests that take 48 to 72 hours to return results since they were more accurate than rapid tests. He noted, however, that it would be impractical to prevent unvaccinated employees from returning to work while waiting for results.
Garcia also asked what could be done about employees who refused to take the test.
“In terms of the consequences, I think we would deal with it on a case-by-case basis,” said Berry. “I mean we did put in the policy that it would be subject to disciplinary action.”
Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) expressed support for making the tests available to all employees as an “excellent component,” but balked at imposing a mandate.
“I would encourage us to go slow before we make a mandate that our employees have to be tested or face consequences,” said Cagle.
“It’s interesting that you have a policy where no where did you reference that the employee should talk to their doctor,” said Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3). “I think you start there.”
Ramsey explained that while he was vaccinated, he had numerous employees who had concerns about the long-term effects of the vaccine, especially women planning to have children. He also noted that some employees spent the entire day on a mower, not interacting with the public or others.
“Precinct 3 employees will not be doing the mandating. I think I’m going to trust them,” said Ramsey.
On a motion from Cagle, the commissioners court unanimously approved making the tests available to employees, but both Ramsey and Cagle voted against mandating weekly tests for unvaccinated employees.
Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) noted he had been in conversations with Berry over the weekend on the new policy and other issues before the commissioners court, and asked if there would be a list of which departments would not be participating in the mandate.
“I don’t see any issues with just reporting who’s chosen to participate,” answered Berry.
Earlier this week the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay on the Biden administration’s requirement for businesses with 100 or more employees to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations or weekly testing, but the White House has urged businesses to ignore the court and continue to plan implementation.
Governor Greg Abbott has issued multiple orders banning vaccine mandates for businesses or local government entities, but First Assistant County Attorney Jay Aiyer told commissioners he did not see legal issues with implementing the testing policy.
The county implemented a mask policy earlier this year that requires employees to show proof of vaccination to be exempt from wearing masks. During Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners Garcia and Ellis wore masks sometimes, while county Judge Lina Hidalgo remained masked at the dais but not during a press conference held mid-way through the public meeting.
Under Hidalgo’s direction, the county’s COVID-19 threat level has remained at “red alert,” the highest, until just last week when she lowered the level to “orange.” She said that ICU capacity at area hospitals was still too high to lower the threat level any further.
Hidalgo has also been urging residents to bring children aged five and above to receive COVID-19 vaccinations at county health centers.
Disclosure: Unlike almost every other media outlet, The Texan is not beholden to any special interests, does not apply for any type of state or federal funding, and relies exclusively on its readers for financial support. If you’d like to become one of the people we’re financially accountable to, click here to subscribe.
Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.