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Baltimore in ‘active discussions’ about requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for employees; full access to in-person services won’t be fully restored until 2022

Baltimore officials are in “active discussions” about requiring the city’s more than 14,000 employees to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, city Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa said Wednesday.

Dzirasa’s statement came during a meeting of Baltimore City Council’s Health, Environment & Technology Committee on the return of government services amid the pandemic. She and other officials did not answer a question about when such a mandate could be effective.

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Mayor Brandon Scott’s spokesman, Cal Harris, said after the meeting that the mayor is exploring several strategies to promote vaccinations, including making them mandatory.

“Incentivizing vaccinations raises various legal and operational issues that Mayor Scott will continue to evaluate before making a decision,” Harris said.

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The first wave of Baltimore’s employees who have been working from home during much of the pandemic returned to work this week as part of the city’s phased plan for reopening. Returning staff provide “priority” services such as operating the city’s bill-paying windows at the Abel Wolman Municipal Building.

The second phase of the plan calls for all other employees who provide “resident-facing” services to return to work Oct. 24. Full access to in-person services would not be restored until January.

As part of their reopening plan, Baltimore leaders have encouraged city employees to get vaccinated against the virus and have held multiple clinics specifically for city staff to get the vaccine. But city officials have stopped short thus far of mandating vaccinations as some other jurisdictions and businesses across the country have.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio is requiring all city workers to either get vaccinated or tested weekly. The Los Angeles City Council will vote on a similar requirement this week.

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Baltimore officials said Wednesday that five mobile vaccination clinics for city employees are planned throughout the fall, and Todd Carter, Baltimore’s chief digital officer, said a vaccination incentive program is being implemented for employees. However, officials were unable to answer any questions about what kind of incentives may be offered.

Officials were also unable to share the vaccination rate of city employees. Quinton Herbert, Baltimore’s director of human resources, said the city is currently receiving that information on a voluntary basis.

“The rate mirrors that of the general population,” he said. Just over 65% of adult Baltimore residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine thus far.

City officials have created a guidebook for employees who are returning to work and have instituted additional protective measures such as social distancing and distributing protective gear. Everyone entering city buildings must sign in using a system that tracks health symptoms, and masks are required when inside all city buildings.

Officials acknowledged, however, that certain parts of Baltimore’s employee operation will never be restored, but did not elaborate. Officials are conducting a pilot program to “re-imagine” the city as a workplace and study the possible use of telework, flexible workspaces, alternative facilities and real estate, Carter said.

“A return to normal or a return to the way it was before COVID-19 is just not our goal in all cases,” he said. “In some cases, that may not be possible.”

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