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The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office will not follow the Johnson County Manager’s Office in adopting a new policy requiring county employees to submit to weekly COVID-19 tests if they cannot show proof of vaccination.
Sheriff Calvin Hayden decided to leave decisions on masks and vaccinations up to his 700 employees, based, he says, on the department’s record over the past year-and-a-half of keeping outbreaks low.
“I’m going to trust the staff to do the right thing,” Hayden said in an interview with the Shawnee Mission Post. “If they want to wear a mask they can wear a mask. If they don’t want to wear a mask, they don’t have to. If they want to get a vaccination they can get a vaccination.”
‘Pretty stellar job of managing COVID’
Hayden said his department has maintained a good record during the pandemic, with no COVID outbreaks in the county jail.
Still, some 130 sheriff’s department employees, including Hayden himself, have contracted the disease since the pandemic began, he said.
Deputies who caught the virus quarantined and followed all the public health guidelines, he added.
All sheriff’s office workers have been offered the vaccine, he said.
“They have done a pretty stellar job of managing COVID. We haven’t skipped a beat in the services we’ve provided,” he said.
He noted sheriff’s employees did not have the option of working from home, in most cases. In general, sheriff’s deputies and other sheriff’s office employees have worked in some of the most high-exposure situations to the public of any county workers during the pandemic.
Sheriff questions effectiveness of vaccines, masks
Hayden said the department did not have statistics on how many employees were vaccinated, but he said it was likely around 50%. The overall rate of vaccination for all county employees is estimated to be 46%, according to the county manager’s office.
But in the interview, Hayden questioned the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine, which has been characterized by many doctors and medical experts as a “miracle” of science, achieved in the midst of a global health crisis, that has proven effective at warding off serious illness and death from the disease.
“We’ve had a ton of officers who have been vaccinated come down with it,” Hayden said. “So does the vaccine work, does it not work? Do masks work, do they not work? If all that stuff worked we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
On the other hand, some officers who had COVID earlier have managed not to get it again.
“I’ve got to say natural immunity is working pretty darn well,” he said.
So-called “breakthrough” infections occur naturally with any inoculation, including annual flu shots, but a Wall Street Journal analysis recently showed that COVID-19 infections among the fully vaccinated remain a tiny fraction of overall cases, which are surging mostly among the unvaccinated this summer due to the contagious Delta variant.
Hayden acknowledged a “section” of vaccinated sheriff’s office employees recently contracted the virus, but would not be more specific about numbers because he did not want to reveal what part of the department they worked in.
The department has offered saliva-based COVID-19 tests for employees and their families who want them, he added.
But there will be no different work assignments going forward between the vaccinated and unvaccinated officers, he said.
“They’re grown adults and they know where they need to be and what they need to do. I’m not going to dictate where they work or don’t work,” Hayden said. “You’re talking about a group of people who carry around guns so they’ve got pretty good judgment.”
Other county units respond to testing policy
County Manager Penny Postoak Ferguson recently issued the new vaccination and testing policy, which will affect 2,680 employees under the county manager’s office and goes into effect Monday, Aug. 23.
The policy is meant to provide extra safety during the outbreak of the Delta variant. Similar measures have been adopted in Kansas City, Mo. and Jackson County, Mo.
But Postoak Ferguson’s directive doesn’t apply to employees that fall outside the county manager’s administrative domain, including employees of the Sheriff’s department, who answer to Hayden.
Park employees also are managed separately. Park district officials say they are still weighing what, if any, steps to take based on the data, said spokesperson Richard Smalley. The county library system is subject to the vaccination rules, a spokesperson there said, and the district attorney’s office is also participating in Postoak Ferguson’s directive.
The county manager’s office had conversations with the sheriff about the new policy, but sheriff’s employees are not required to participate, Postoak Ferguson said.
Sheriff’s officials did request kits for voluntary testing, however.
Overall, Johnson County’s coronavirus cases have been on the upswing since the arrival of the Delta variant, and hospital medical officers recently warned that their beds and ICUs are filling up.
The vaccination rate for the county as a whole is 57.8% fully vaccinated and 63.5 percent with one dose, according to JCDHE data.