Abby Rook talks COVID policy

Sioux County human resources director Abby Rook explains aspects of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s policy on COVID-19 vaccines and testing as county supervisors Carl Vande Weerd and Al Bloemendaal listen.

ORANGE CITY—Sioux County Board of Supervisors approved during its Jan. 3 meeting a COVID-19 vaccine policy to remain in compliance with directives from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Failing to approve such a policy by Jan. 10 would have put the county at risk for substantial fines, according to Sioux County human resources director Abby Rook, as much as to $14,000 per employee who’s not following the policy. Willful neglect of the policy could amount up to $160,000 per day per person.

With the policy approved 3-2, the supervisors hope for the OSHA vaccine mandate to be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, which will begin its hearing on the matter on Friday, Jan. 7.

Supervisors Carl Vande Weerd and Al Bloemendaal voted against the measure.

As Rook told the supervisors, OSHA’s emergency temporary standard is set to go into effect Jan. 10, with the county supposed to have a policy in place by then. By having a policy approved, the county gains another 30 days to begin enforcing vaccine and testing requirements on its employees.

“People don’t have to submit to the weekly testing or the mask requirements or any of that stuff until Feb. 9. This doesn’t change anything starting next week Monday, it just puts this in place so that if we have to, we’re ready to go. Ideally, we don’t have to,” Rook said.

Gaining that extra time to enforce a mandate is a main benefit of approving the policy, she said.

Supervisor Mark Sybesma said he expects some county employees won’t be pleased with the policy.

“We’re not happy about this either. I think we have to make that clear, that this is a federal mandate basically that’s pretty onerous to us. … They’re going to fight this thing,” Sybesma said regarding legal challenges to federal vaccine mandates. “We probably won’t have to do anything.”

As county auditor Ryan Dokter explained, the county is moving forward with the OSHA policy because “Iowa is a state that participates in the OSHA state plan, so as long as Iowa is a part of that, we have to follow OSHA mandates.”

Rook added that the county asking its employees about their vaccination status does not violate Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) rules.

“The law is that I cannot share that information,” Rook said. “I can collect a doctor’s note from you if you have to miss work, I can collect vaccination status and things like that. But I cannot share it with anybody.”

If the policy would go into effect and an employee would refuse to either begin the vaccination process or undergo the required testing, Rook said, “We’d move forward with an interactive accommodation process if we could and try to figure out what we could do to keep them employed for as long as possible.”

Possible action could include termination.

In the case of noncompliant elected officials, the OSHA policy warns of disciplinary action as well, which could mean financial responsibility for any fines imposed or initiating removal proceedings under Iowa code.

The supervisors had questions about whether natural immunity gained from contracting COVID-19 and recovering would be taken into account, as well as religious exemptions.

“It’s not adequate for proof of vaccination, but it is adequate if you test positive, then you don’t have to test weekly for 90 days,” Rook said. “You would just need to provide that proof of a positive test.”

After those 90 days, that individual would resume weekly COVID tests.

A religious exemption would apply only to the vaccine portion of the mandate; an employee claiming a religious exemption would still be subject to weekly testing and masking.

Although there are some test kits that can be purchased and administered at home, not all home test kits are considered sufficient by OSHA’s standards.

“Before we rolled anything out, I would make sure which tests do qualify and which tests don’t,” Rook said. “Another thing is you can get the free Test Iowa in Sioux County at a number of locations.”

The policy does not dictate who pays for the COVID testing, which would have to be worked out, Rook said.

“That’s the bad part. They want us to put in place a mandate that’s not complete,” Vande Weerd said. “I don’t know how they can mandate that. I’m just not in favor of telling our people that they have to report until we know what’s happening.”

“I do believe that it’s likely this will not go very far. I don’t think we’ll get to that point. That’s my personal opinion,” Sybesma said.

“I truly hope that on Friday, they shut it all down or they put another stay on it and we get some more time. I really do,” Rook said, “but we will not know until Friday.”