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Public sector employers encouraging staff vaccinations

Officials say planning and communication started before new tier opened up

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With the latest tier of COVID-19 vaccines open in Missouri, Springfield employers in eligible sectors are taking the initiative to ensure their employees have the information and opportunity to be vaccinated.

On March 15, an additional 550,000 Missourians became eligible for vaccination as Phase 1B, Tier 3 opened, including critical infrastructure sectors like education, energy, government, information technology, food and agriculture, and child care.

Increasing vaccination numbers in the city will move Springfield forward in the Springfield-Greene County Health Department’s thresholds to relax virus rules. The safety ordinances, including the face mask requirement, are slated to be removed if 50% of residents over age 16, or roughly 119,436 people, are vaccinated and the city shows less than 20 new cases per day and less than 20 hospital patients in COVID-19 isolation per day.

Springfield City Manager Jason Gage said vaccinating city employees is critical to the city’s operations.

“I don’t want us to be a service provider that spreads a disease. It’s really that simple, and we take that responsibility really seriously,” Gage said. “We do believe we have to be an example in this community.”

The city employs about 1,900 full-time staff, plus part-time seasonal workers. Gage said employees will not be required to vaccinate but they’re encouraged if able.

At Springfield Public Schools, staff surveys about the vaccine found about 2,400 employees, or 69% of the district’s workforce of 3,500, responded positively to their interest in receiving it.

Jean Grabeel, director of health services for SPS, said the district has been communicating vaccination info and resources since before the tier opened. She said long-standing partnerships with the hospitals and Health Department helped to facilitate those conversations.

“We did a lot of planning, even in December and January, before the vaccine was available for us,” Grabeel said.

Although the vaccine only became available for educators and other school staff recently, about 400 SPS employees were vaccinated in prior tiers, Grabeel said. School nurses were eligible as health care providers, and some employees met age requirements or had certain health conditions that made them eligible.

Early conversations at City Hall led officials to offer an incentive for employees who sign up to get vaccinated. Employees will receive a gift card after their first shot and earn a day off when fully vaccinated.

“We asked ourselves what is the biggest motivation to get our employees vaccinated,” Gage said. “So having that time to be able to do what someone wants to do, we knew that was important.”

In the public energy sector, City Utilities of Springfield also had been working with the Health Department in advance, said Joel Alexander, manager of media and energy services.

While CU encourages employees to get vaccinated, but doesn’t require it, he said the utility currently has approximately 200 employees who qualify under Tier 3 that have expressed interest in a vaccine. The company also previously worked to get qualified employees under earlier tiers, such as first responders and high-risk individuals, vaccinated.

Leaders at IT services provider JMark Business Solutions Inc., the largest area information technology company with 87 local employees, are actively encouraging employees to get vaccinated, said Chief Growth Officer Andy Whaley, in a provided statement.

However, not all employees in eligible sectors are willing to be vaccinated. Leaders at CoxHealth and Mercy Springfield Communities, in February, said only about half of all employees had elected to get the vaccine.

The local health care workers mirror national trends. A February report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found only 49% of adults surveyed were willing to be vaccinated for the virus. As of March 17, about 22% of the U.S. population and about 20% of the Missouri population had received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to the CDC.

Some employers are taking extra steps to make sure getting the vaccine is convenient for their employees.

SPS’ Grabeel said she wasn’t aware of any incentives offered, but human resources employees are making sure staff are able to take time off of work to get vaccinated.

Similarly, CU is not offering direct incentives, Alexander said, but the utility is taking steps to make access to the vaccine convenient by setting up on-site vaccination clinics for employees and their spouses who qualify under Tier 3.

Alexander said CU held two vaccination clinics in March for qualifying employees, provided through a partnership with the Health Department. Follow-up events for second shots also will be scheduled.

Even as vaccination numbers increase, employers are aware that other safety measures can’t be removed just yet. As of March 17, about 10.6% of the Greene County population – 25,395 people – had been fully vaccinated, according to Health Department data. Local health officials have set a goal to get 70% of the community vaccinated in the Finish Strong Challenge issued last month.

Gage said city staff will follow City Council’s recommendations on fully returning to in-person work.

“We’re putting a lot of information out. We have electronic means, and we have little posters we’re posting all over so that if you’re an employee, you can’t miss it,” Gage said. “We’ve been really upfront about making sure employees know that there’s an incentive out there and how important it is for us to finish strong with our vaccination.”

SPS officials say staff will continue to wear face masks and self-monitor symptoms as some students attend in-person class and others continue to virtual learn.

“We know (the vaccine) is going to be another layer of protection, but we still want to continue those practices of wearing face masks, socially distancing and staying home if ill,” Grabeel said.

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