Water employees offered COVID vaccinations

  • OKAMOTO

There hasn’t been a single positive coronavirus test among the county Department of Water Supply’s 164 staff.

And the agency wants to keep it that way.

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Water Department employees have moved up to Phase 1B of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, meaning they’re eligible to move to the front of the line as essential workers.

Water and wastewater utility workers were previously classified as “other essential workers” to be vaccinated in Phase 1C, rather than “front-line essential workers” such as police, firefighters and teachers vaccinated in Phase 1B, under guidelines promulgated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The directors of the state’s four water utilities disagreed, and came together to make that point in a Dec. 17 letter to Gov. David Ige, asking for the enhanced designation. Phase 1B individuals are being vaccinated now, while Phase 1C isn’t expected to begin until spring.

“Vaccinating front-line water utility staff is particularly important because, as a critical lifeline sector, drinking water services underpin all aspects of our community, including hospitals and long-term care facilities,” said the letter, signed by all four water directors. “Due to the specialized skills and licenses required for water utility operations, and the corresponding challenges in finding replacements for staff who may become ill or exposed, it is essential to mitigate staff members’ COVID-19 risks through all possible means, including vaccinations.”

Together, the four county water utilities serve more than 90% of the state’s population.

The Hawaii County Board of Water voted unanimously Tuesday to send its own letter along similar lines to the governor to strengthen that message.

Manager-Chief Engineer Keith Okamoto praised the department’s employees for following COVID-19 prevention protocols and maintaining a safe environment.

“Everybody who is an employee with us can register to get vaccinations,” Okamoto said. “They consider us essential enough to be included in (Phase 1B).”

What happens if an employee declines not to get vaccinated, asked board member David De Luz. He described problems in other businesses where employees refused to get the vaccine and other employees became worried and filed for unemployment on the basis of an unsafe workplace.

“Our concern is we have to provide a safe environment,” De Luz said.

Okamoto said the department can’t require the vaccine.

“For us it’s all voluntary,” he said. “We cannot make it mandatory.”

County Human Resources Director Bill Brilhante agreed. Not only does the county not require the vaccine as a condition of employment, it also has no way of knowing who gets the vaccine and who doesn’t because of the federal law restricting release of medical information.

He said the county submits the names and email addresses for qualifying employees to the CDC vaccine management system. Qualified employees are contacted directly.

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“Because of (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) and privacy issues, the county’s not involved going forward,” Brilhante said. “It’s all voluntary for the employees.”

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

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