Officials in The Woodlands have explained the community’s internal policy to not require firefighters or other township employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine as a “management decision” and not a legal opinion.
As of the end of January, an estimated 40 percent of the township’s fire department staff had taken at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Township officials did not mandate that staff take a vaccine and have made it optional for all employees.
In response to reader questions about the township’s coronavirus policies, Township administrators were asked for a more thorough explanation behind the decision. A public records request also was filed for information on the overall township policy toward the coronavirus and the vaccine efforts.
Lisa Morris, the accounting and public information analyst for The Woodlands Township, said the public records request was being contested by township leaders.
“(The Woodlands) will be requesting an Open Records Decision from the (Texas) Attorney General’s Office for information that it believes is exempted from disclosure,” Morris said in an email.
Nick Wolda, the communications director for the township, said in an email that while researching the issue of vaccinations for firefighters and township staff, employees working on the task could not find any other local governmental entities mandating their staff take the vaccine.
He also said the township’s decision was in no way a legal opinion or interpretation of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines on the aspects of mandatory vaccinations.
“The Texas Commission on Fire Protection does not require that firefighters receive the COVID-19 vaccination. The EEOC reference provides guidance to employers; it does not have the power of mandates,” Wolda said in an email. “We have not heard of any local hospitals that are requiring their employees providing direct patient care to be vaccinated. We are unaware of any surrounding local government first responder agencies or hospitals requiring their employees be vaccinated.”
In a late January interview, the president of the union that represents the 170 employees of the fire department, Erik Secrest, said many firefighters have indicated they did not want to take a COVID-19 vaccine at this time because some believe it is a “drug trial” in essence and they do not want to be guinea pigs. He also said all fire department staff were offered the option to get an early dose of the vaccine as first responders and he and the union leadership were pleased that the township assisted in making those vaccinations occur.
Wolda said while the township did facilitate getting vaccines to those who were willing to take it, the vaccine was not a requirement.
“The Woodlands Fire Fighters have been offered, as first responders, vaccination for COVID-19. This is an individual choice and not a township mandated requirement. There are numerous reasons why people might not take the vaccine. People either choose to receive, decline, or are ineligible for vaccination for a number of reasons.”
The fire department has battled the coronavirus since mid-March when it was first discovered in the Houston region, with dozens of fire department staff both testing positive for COVID-19 as well as being quarantined due to possible contact with an infected patient. Secrest has publicly stated that he contracted the virus but recovered with few symptoms, but other firefighters have maintained their health status as private and not revealed any details to the public.
“The Woodlands Township is not required to hold records of who has been vaccinated and who has not been vaccinated,” Wolda added. “To the extent we may have any responsive records which are medical in nature, they would be confidential under health care laws.”