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With the deadline here, 90% of Allegheny County employees meet vaccine requirement

Isabelle Schmeler
90.5 WESA

Allegheny County’s nearly 5,000 employees had until Wednesday to get vaccinated against COVID-19. According to officials, more than 90% of the county’s workforce has complied.

“It’s been an overwhelming response,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said. “Many of them have already been vaccinated, but so many more have come forward,” since the mandate was announced.

Those who do not comply with the mandate can face termination as a result.

Fitzgerald declined to specify how many employees refused the vaccine but said the county’s human resources and legal departments are working through addressing the small number of workers who have refused.

The county did allow for some health and religious exemptions, but Fitzgerald estimated only 1% to 2% of staff applied for an exemption.

Two local unions — one representing county police and one representing Allegheny County Jail employees — have filed a joint lawsuit in an attempt to block the mandate. Last week, a judge denied the unions’ request to delay the vaccine requirement, ruling it can remain in effect while legal proceedings continue.

An Allegheny County Prison Employees Independent Union representative said as many as 20 jail guards could be fired as a result of declining vaccination. That’s a significant difference from last month when jail officials reported that 211 employees had not yet been vaccinated.

Fitzgerald said the risk of getting fired may have encouraged some who were hesitant to get the vaccine, as it has in other workplaces across the country.

“You’re seeing this across the board now with so many different organizations,” he said.

He pointed to local universities, television stations and other government organizations that all have vaccine mandates as a way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

According to Fitzgerald, the rate of compliance among the county's departments varied slightly.

Only two of the 204 employees at the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office declined to submit proof of their vaccination by the deadline, according to Chief Deputy Kevin Kraus.

“I understand the controversy and the different perspectives… but from a duty standpoint, we have a responsibility to keep our workplace as well as the public safe,” Kraus said.

Several holdout employees who previously said they would face termination rather than get the shot eventually complied in the last month, according to Kraus.

“As time got closer and we got closer to that deadline, it certainly seemed like the compliance rate increased significantly,” he said.

Some employees were given extensions as a result of testing positive for COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend getting vaccinated no sooner than 90 days after treatment for COVID-19.

Some sheriff’s office employees got extensions in good faith if they were between shots Wednesday, according to Kraus.

“If somebody within the last week got the Pfizer or Moderna shot …and showed proof of that, we offered extensions for those people,” to get their second shot Kraus said.

He estimated fewer than a dozen of the sheriff’s department employees were in that scenario.

Fitzgerald applauded the overwhelming compliance among County employees Wednesday.

“[They’re] not only protecting themselves and their families but protecting their coworkers and protecting the people that we serve every day in this county,” he said.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.