Health board discusses weekly testing for unvaccinated city employees

Mayor Lioneld Jordan speaks on Zoom during the Sept. 8 Board of Health meeting / Fayetteville Government Channel

A weekly COVID-19 testing policy for all city employees might be difficult to manage, but the idea isn’t completely off the table.

Mayor Lioneld Jordan discussed the matter with the city’s Board of Health after last week’s City Council decision that asked the mayor to explore the idea.

The policy was proposed by Council Member Matthew Petty, and the council voted 6-2 to approve a resolution encouraging the mayor to investigate the possibility of requiring all city employees to submit results of a COVID-19 to the Human Resources Department every week. Any employee who voluntarily presents a vaccination card showing that they are fully vaccinated would be exempt from the rule.

City Attorney Kit Williams earlier this month said testing should be administered during work hours to ensure the policy doesn’t interfere with an employee’s free time. He also said tests should be paid for by the city so that there are no costs imposed on any employees because of the new policy.

Members of the health board said while the plan could incentivize vaccinations and go a long way toward keeping employees safe, managing the details on a weekly basis would be challenging.

The city currently has 770 employees, said Missy Cole, the city’s Human Resources director. About 64% of those are likely fully vaccinated, she said. That leaves about 278 employees who are either hesitant or resistant to the idea of receiving a vaccine.

“I don’t know, logistically, how this is going to work,” said Board Member Huda Sharaf, director of the University of Arkansas’ Pat Walker Health Center. “I’m just being honest.”

Sharaf said aside from the costs of tests, which range from $50 to $100 each, coordination of weekly testing procedures might not be something the city can handle.

She said it’s one thing for private companies whose employees are located within a single building or complex, but regular testing of hundreds of employees who are spread all across town – some who work days and others at night – could be unmanageable.

Fire Chief Brad Hardin said he envisions a major challenge in his department.

“I can’t imagine the logistics of trying to pull this off,” Hardin said. “In the Fire Department alone, to catch three different cycled shifts that alternate week to week…it’s very complicated.”

The board discussed some possible recommendations, such as setting a time limit or a goal for an end date.

Board Chairman Hershey Garner said one idea is to lift the policy if the city reaches an 85% vaccination rate, which at this point, would require about 160 more people to become fully vaccinated.

Other ideas where discussed, including whether employees who’ve already contracted COVID-19 should be excluded.

Marti Sharkey, the city’s public health officer, suggested that anyone who has previously contracted the virus should probably be exempted from testing for 90 days after infection.

“The science shows that’s when the immunity does start waning,” Sharkey said. “Cellular immunity is harder to measure, and we know that it probably does last longer than that, but 90 days has become the standard.”

Hardin said he read a recent study that showed natural immunity indeed lasts longer than three months, but said it’s important to remember that the safest way to gain immunity is through receiving the vaccine.

Sharkey agreed.

“The goal is to keep people healthy, so I think being more conservative on the duration that they’re excluded from testing is most appropriate,” said Sharkey.

City Attorney Williams has said he believes a weekly testing policy could be legally adopted, despite two recently passed state laws that ban vaccine requirements and passports for government employees.

Act 977 prohibits state and local governments from requiring coronavirus vaccinations, but Williams said the city would not impose any vaccine or immunization requirements.

Act 1030, which bans state and local governments from requiring documentation showing that a person is vaccinated against Covid-19, would not apply, Williams said, as long as Fayetteville’s policy is absolutely clear that no employee is required to furnish a vaccination card.

Garner said while he’d prefer to err on the side of keeping people healthy, if the city doesn’t have the ability to manage the policy, then the legalities are irrelevant.

“The testing, it sounds like to me, is a moot point, just due to the logistics of it,” said Garner. “No matter how sound the public health policy position is.”

Williams said it’s possible that testing certain departments won’t be manageable, but that doesn’t mean other areas of the city with higher concentrations of employees could not be properly tested.

“Obviously, I’m leaving that up to the mayor and his staff, but I wouldn’t give up yet,” said Williams.

Jordan said he’ll continue to explore the idea and keep the board in the loop on any developments.

“At the end of the day I’m going to have to make a call here,” said Jordan. “The best course of action would, of course, be for everyone to get vaccinated, but at this point, that’s neither here nor there.”