Businesses must mandate vaccinations, Palm Beach County leaders say as hospitals face COVID-19 surge

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As Palm Beach County hospitals continue to be flooded with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients, many frustrated officials have had enough, saying it’s time for employers to begin mandating vaccinations for their workers.

During a Thursday news conference, county leaders painted a dire picture of the situation, noting that the county’s 14 public hospitals have currently exceeded their total bed and ICU capacity. More than 85% of patients being admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, according to hospital data.

“Our hospitals are very much full,” Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner said. “There are some real concerns as you go through the data regarding the availability of health care in Palm Beach County.”

Palm Beach County Tax Collector Anne Gannon on Thursday called on area employers to require that their workers get the COVID-19 vaccine, expressing hope it becomes as popular as Viagra.

“The COVID drugs are no different than Viagra drugs,” Gannon told reporters, recalling interest when the erectile dysfunction drugs first hit the market. “There was no problem using that drug, so what’s the issue with this one?”

The tax collector made that quip tongue-in-cheek, but she did so with three other elected officials to underscore the importance of making sure the COVID vaccines are required among workforces.

“This is a serious disease and vaccines are critically important, and masks and social distancing, to helping this country and our state get over this very terrible disease,” said Gannon, the first government leader in the area to require employees to get the shots.

“I don’t want my employees to get COVID,” she said, telling the story of one worker who was in the hospital for three months and ultimately lost her job when benefits ran out. She also said a healthy 54-year-old information technology manager became infected with COVID-19 and died.

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, arranged the news conference to urge companies to insist upon the vaccines. She assured that the businesses and government agencies who do so will be protected against lawsuits.

“We’ve had lawyers look at this, there is no prohibition of an employer mandating or requiring vaccines of an employee,” Frankel said. “It is perfectly legal in this state … the governor’s office was asked about this, and they said they are not interfering with an employer/employee relationship.”

Lawsuits or not, the push comes as Florida vows to beginning issuing $5,000 fines on Sept. 16 to businesses, schools and government agencies that require individuals to prove they’ve had a COVID-19 vaccination.

Frankel said the impact of more outbreaks would be far costlier for employers.

“The biggest fear, ironically, is that their employees may leave (if forced to get the vaccine),” the congresswoman said. “What we try to point out to them is — you saw what happened in California how one teacher infected an entire school — can you imagine what one unvaccinated waitress or waiter could do for a restaurant both to employees and to customers?”

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She predicts a trend where more employers will require vaccination because they will not be able to avoid staggering health care costs.

Shelly Petrolia, Delray Beach mayor, said the city’s 315 employees had until a Monday deadline to show proof of full vaccination or submit to weekly COVID-19 testing. At this point, 85% of the workers have had the shots.

“This is not an easy thing for elected officials to do, but it’s the right thing to do,” Petrolia said. “Until we get serious about getting the vaccines, we’re never going to be serious about getting in front of this.”

Palm Beach County Clerk and Comptroller Joe Abruzzo said he recently announced a $500 incentive to his employees to get the vaccine or undergo weekly testing.

“We are doing everything that we can,” he said, calling the incentive costs a “drop in the bucket” compared with what it would cost for health insurance payouts and the loss of workers.

Right now, 20% of Abruzzo’s workforce is sidelined by COVID-19 or exposure to the virus.

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