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Santa Ana officials are still fleshing out the nuts and bolts of just how exactly they’ll mandate COVID-19 vaccines for public employees in Orange County’s hardest hit city, where the total death toll is approaching 1,000.
Namely, the mechanics of a vaccine mandate for all city employees are still being worked out between City Hall and the various city employee unions it bargains with — three weeks after City Hall’s top executive, City Manager Kristine Ridge, announced on Aug. 18 she would order one.
One of those employee unions, representing police officers who interact and come into close contact with Santa Ana residents on a regular basis, has already gone public in criticizing such a requirement as “taking away our citizen(s’) rights to personal medical choice …”
“The Santa Ana Police Officers Association strongly opposes any unlawful mandate,” reads a statement the union posted to Instagram three weeks ago.
It goes on to accuse Ridge of “unilaterally” implementing the requirement, despite the fact that one has yet to take effect.
“The City Manager has not unilaterally implemented a COVID-19 vaccine requirement,” said City Hall spokesperson Paul Eakins in a written statement on Thursday.
The police union’s president, Gerry Serrano, didn’t respond to requests for comment on his union’s public message.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced that people working at places employing more than 100 workers must either get vaccinated or undergo weekly testing.
Eakins, in another statement Friday, said Biden’s executive order “currently specifies that this rule applies to private-sector employers; however, we will be working under the assumption that public-sector employers also will be included,” unless the agencies tasked with implementing Biden’s executive order say “otherwise.”
Ridge will discuss the practicalities of a vaccine requirement for city employees with each of the city’s employee unions, Eakins wrote in his other Thursday statement, “to determine how a vaccine requirement would impact employees, how it would be implemented and enforced, and any alternative measures, such as regular testing for those who aren’t able to get vaccinated.”
Despite this, the union in its Instagram statement insists that “for a city manager to arbitrarily mandate policy taking away our citizens rights to personal medical choice is unconstitutional and oversteps any authority a single person should have over any citizen or employee.”
“The Association will never accept the violation of anyone’s rights to an unlawful forfeiture of their constitutional rights to choice in medical health,” the union message adds.
The union’s targeted critique of the city manager falls in line with previous statements and accusations leveled against City Hall in recent months — a series of public union complaints which city officials say is driven by a pressure campaign under Serrano aimed at improperly boosting his own public pension.
The union’s pushback to a vaccine mandate appears to have prompted Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento to reassure the city’s Spanish speaking residents, during an Aug. 26 Latino Health Access forum, that a vaccine requirement for city employees, including police officers, “is necessary.”
“The people suffering the most are people of color, lower income people and especially Latinos,” Sarmiento said in Spanish during the forum. “What we did last Tuesday at the city council meeting is we directed the manager to require that all city employees be vaccinated and it be mandatory, including the police officers.”
“Unfortunately we have seen a lot of resistance on their (police’s) part. I am assuring you that I will follow up on that because we know it’s something that is necessary, that the municipality should lead by example, because if we are telling everyone else to get vaccinated and be protected we should be the example so others can follow.”
Just more than 48,000 total cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Santa Ana throughout the pandemic, which began in March 2020, according to the latest pandemic data from the Orange County Health Care Agency.
Nearly 900 total deaths in Santa Ana have been reported as of last Friday.
“I understand the concerns the bargaining units may have — I understand concerns people in general may have about vaccine mandates, but don’t think it should be something completely off the table,” said City Councilmember Jessie Lopez in a Wednesday phone interview.
Asked for a rough estimate of when the city could expect to turn around an actual vaccine requirement for implementation, Eakins in an earlier phone interview Thursday said:
“I think the City Manager is having conversations with all of our unions and those conversations are best had in those meetings.”
Eakins also said the city hasn’t kept track of how many of its employees are currently vaccinated.
Yet, Lopez said she was updated by the city in February, and was told just over half of the police department — “51%” — had been vaccinated.
On Aug. 18, Ridge announced she would require City of Santa Ana employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
A requirement has yet to be implemented.
“We will continue to work with our employee unions on vaccinations and mitigating COVID-19 transmission,” Eakins said on Friday.
Director of Photography Julie Leopo contributed to this report.