A total of 51 Pima County employees will lose their jobs after failing to comply with a county mandate that employees who work with vulnerable populations be vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of 2021.
Notices of Termination will be sent out by Friday to 22 employees in the Sheriff’s Department, 11 in the Pima County Attorney’s Office and 18 employees scattered throughout other county departments, acting County Administrator Jan Lesher said at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.
When the county began this process in November, Lesher said they identified just under 2,100 employees who worked with vulnerable populations – which generally included all county healthcare workers, employees at the jail and those who regularly work with children or the elderly; 427 of those were unvaccinated at the time.
On Monday, Lesher sent a memo to board members stating that 179 county employees remained unvaccianted, including 101 corrections officers and sergeants, but revised that estimate Tuesday after receiving additional information from the Sheriff’s Department.
“Sheriff Nanos…was able to identify 89 individuals who we do not have the records for in central administration that those individuals have been vaccinated, but those individuals communicated with the leadership of the Sheriff’s Department that while they might not be currently vaccinated, they are not working with vulnerable populations,” Lesher said.
A number of those individuals also had extenuating circumstances, Lesher said, including employees who were on military, family or medical leave.
Though they do not currently work with vulnerable populations, Lesher said all 89 indicated they will continue to work with the Sheriff’s Department to meet vaccination requirements as they return to the workforce.
As of Jan. 4, the Sheriff’s Department has indicated no one would be released from the jail to reduce the population as a result of the staffing cuts.
“The sheriff has been consistently stating that he can ensure the safety of not only the entire community but the people within his jail, with the staff that he has,” Lesher said.
According to county data, about 87 percent of Pima County’s roughly 6,200 employees have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and 63 vaccine exemptions have been granted.
In November, Pima County reported 15,943 cases of COVID-19, about a 14 percent increase in reported cases over November 2020. According to county data, weekly cases have peaked from a pandemic low of 243 during the last week of May 2021, to a new high of 4,587 cases reported in the last week of December.
To keep up with the recent surge, the Pima County Health Department has doubled-down on COVID-19 testing efforts across the county.
Together with their partners, the health department performed more than 300,000 diagnostic COVID tests at more than 88 mobile and fixed sites in the county in November and December, and has distributed more than 120,000 rapid take-home tests through schools and county libraries.
Since July 2020, nearly 2.5 million COVID-19 tests have been performed in the county – an increase of 150,000 cases in the past 20 days alone, Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the health department, noted in a Dec. 30 memo to county administrators.
But the escalated demand for testing in recent weeks has strained health department resources. In December, the cost for general public testing increased more than 40 percent to an average of about $30,000 per day, Cullen said.
Last month, the board allocated an additional $3 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds to support COVID testing efforts in the county, but Cullen noted those funds could run out as soon as next month.
“If the past 10 days is indicative of future utilization, Pima County will expend the board authorized $3M supplement on or before March 3, 2022. If the past three days are more reflective of future demand, the County will deplete the Board authorized funds on or before February 15, 2022,” Cullen wrote.
Lesher said Tuesday that county administration has been tracking the budget closely, and plans to come back to board members with a plan for allocating additional funds, and additional resources for those funds, during their Jan. 18 meeting.
Hospitals, ICUs strained
As a result of the current surge in COVID cases, intensive care unit beds across Pima County continue to be a scarcity.
As of Jan. 2, six ICU beds – two percent of the ICU bed capacity in the county – were available, with one-third of beds occupied by COVID patients, according to county data.
Another 288 COVID patients occupy staffed beds in inpatient hospital settings, and over 20 percent of those were admitted within the prior 24 hours, according to a Jan. 3 memo from Lesher.
Supervisor Matt Heinz, a doctor at Tucson Medical Center, said he’s seen the effects of reduced hospital capacity first-hand, and urged those who remain unvaccinated to protect themselves and their community.
“Think about the fact that if someone you love needs a heart bypass surgery, they might not be able to get this life-saving operation if hospitals don’t have capacity. Getting COVID numbers down is important for non-COVID patients, too. This is on all of us,” he said on Twitter following Tuesday's meeting.
As of Jan. 2, nearly 74 percent of county residents 18 and older and about 64 percent of the entire county population have been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to county data, about a third of fully vaccinated Pima County residents have also received their booster dose.
Dr. Francisco Garcia, chief medical officer for Pima County, said by increasing vaccination efforts among school-aged children, he’s hoping to push the county to at least 75 percent fully vaccinated, but acknowledged it’s not without its challenges.
“A real wild card here is the reality of waning immunity, so that the booster process becomes part of that layer of protection that we need to offer people,” Garcia said.
“There are no easy choices here in terms of how we manage our response to the pandmeic, but what we have to do, however, is our very best to preserve the very precious hospital resources in the community,” he said.
Aside from increasing the vaccination rate in the county, improving the availability of COVID therapeutics could be another tool for protecting hospital capacity.
This week, two federal monoclonal antibody (mAb) therapy treatment teams will be set up in Pima County, more than doubling the county’s mAb capacity with new treatment locations in St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s hospitals.
Due to hospital staffing shortages, Lesher said the availability of mAb therapy has been limited to about 25 appointments a day across the county. The federal teams will expand that to an additional 50 treatments per week over the next month. Lesher also said she expects recently approved antiviral medications will also begin flowing into the county from federal and state governments soon.