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Columbia trying to ‘strike a balance’ with its COVID vaccine mandate for city employees

Published: Oct. 18, 2021 at 7:34 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Roughly 60% of the Columbia Fire Department is fully vaccinated and about 70% of the police department is, according to City Manager Teresa Wilson.

However, on November 1st those two departments and the entire City of Columbia workforce of more than 2,000 employees will be under a vaccine mandate.

Wilson says that doesn’t mean all unvaccinated employees will be fired when the clock strikes midnight on Halloween, but they could face consequences and possible termination later in the year.

“We are having to look at this strictly from a provision of services perspective in that we are public servants working for an organization or municipality to keep the water clean, has to keep the trash picked up, protect people, be first responders. So when you factor that in, the directive is coming from that place. It is not trying to infringe on your personal rights,” Wilson said.

Wilson has taken a two-pronged approach to increase the vaccination rate of city employees since city council passed the vaccine mandate in early September.

She is offering vaccinated employees incentives and is working on repercussions for those who don’t want to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

In fact, Wilson says after the September vote she found that 50% of city employees were fully vaccinated. She says since then the city has rolled out a $500 one-time bonus for fully vaccinated employees, offered one-on-one meetings with people who are unsure if they want to get vaccinated, and continuously been distributing information on the COVID vaccine. As of last week, Wilson boasts that 74% of the city’s workforce is immunized against the coronavirus.

“If we can get to 80% or a rate like that would show a much higher percentage city-wide...that would be something I’d really like to discuss with city council as far as putting that policy in place where the mandatory vaccination policy is expected, but certainly we want to have some other consequences too for those individuals who choose not to get vaccinated. There may be something in place, but not the termination of employment,” Wilson said.

Wilson says given the labor shortage impacting businesses across the country, she doesn’t want to lose any city employees or first responders.

“I would hope that we can spare them from being terminated but work with them in some other ways. Probably some things that will be consequences they have to live with if they still work here, but I’m trying my best to strike that balance,” she said.

Wilson says more details will be discussed at Tuesday’s council meeting when she presents the latest data on vaccinations and potential consequences to the group of elected, city leaders.

As of Monday, 62% of eligible South Carolinians have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to DHEC.

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