As the omicron variant continues to rear its head locally and across the country, federal initiatives aim to make home-testing kits and N95 masks available to the public, free of charge.
At the same time, talk of a vaccinate-or-test mandate at businesses with more than 100 employees has all but ceased, the result of a Jan. 13 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that declared the federal edict a “blunt instrument” that failed to account for particularized risks in different industries.
At mid-January, tri-county area residents began placing orders for free, rapid at-home COVID tests through COVIDTests.gov, to be delivered to home addresses via USPS.
In addition, New Hanover County had received 43,000 N95 masks from a government stockpile and began distributing them in historically marginalized communities and to county employees, said Carla Turner, the county’s assistant health director. As of Jan. 21, a total of 30,400 masks had been distributed, according to a spokesperson.
Some private employers are also stepping up, with one of the region’s largest industrial employers having achieved employee vaccination rates that substantially exceed federal, state and local numbers through a mix of voluntary actions and a specific geographic mandate.
With the arrival of COVID, ACME Smoked Fish plant at Pender Commerce Park upped its game, including deep cleaning its facility daily, said Brandon Sproles, the company’s environment, health and safety director.
Partnering with Wilmington Health, “We had a mitigation plan early on … we had them look over the plan, make some adjustments as needed, really partnering with them to make sure that we’re doing all we can given our working environment,” Sproles said.
In anticipation of the now-defunct federal vaccination mandate, Sproles invited a medical team from New Hanover County’s health department into the plant as 2021 ended. After five hours, 66 more of its 301 employees had been vaccinated or boosted.
“So we are about 75%, 80% right now vaccinated at the plant, which is a tremendous amount compared to where we were just a month ago,” Sproles said on Jan. 18.
“Vaccinations are encouraged, and we have held clinics to allow our employees access to the vaccine at our facility,” added Filipe Espinosa, director of manufacturing. “However, vaccines are not currently required to work at the North Carolina facility.”
But at ACME’s New York City headquarters, where 218 people are employed, it’s a different story.
Several weeks before the Supreme Court voided the Biden administration’s mandate, then-mayor Bill de Blasio used his municipal authority to clamp down on the city’s private sector as omicron raged.
The mandate, still in place, requires employees who perform in-person work to show proof they have received at least one dose of vaccine and proof of a second dose within 45 days. Businesses must verify proof of vaccination and may not allow any unvaccinated employee into their workplace.
“I think it [the city mandate] helped in the sense that it wasn’t our decision, but it was the law and we had to follow the law,” said co-CEO Adam Caslow, speaking from ACME’s Brooklyn, New York, headquarters.
“We still need to hire employees,” he said. “We couldn’t afford to alienate those who choose not to be vaccinated because we need to operate our business.”
By mid-January, 95% of ACME’s staff in Brooklyn had been inoculated with at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to 70% prior to the city’s mandate. At its Pender plant – not covered by the New York edict – the one-dose vaccination rate stood near 80%.
Both ACME plants bested the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s nationwide rate of 75%; the 65% rate for New Hanover County residents; the 64% rate for Brunswick County and all of North Carolina; and Pender County’s 53% rate.
ACME also operates in Massachusetts, where 88% of its workers are vaccinated, and in Florida.
“Florida has not really had any COVID-19 mitigation since May of 2020,” Sproles said. “We have followed CDC guidance in Florida and not necessarily the State of Florida, which is why we continue to require masks, etc.”
To reduce the chance of spreading COVID from one plant to another, “We have instituted a policy that if you are not vaccinated you’re not able to travel on company business,” Caslow said.
“I certainly don’t want COVID to define our corporate identity, and I keep going back to those three goals: to keep people safe, keep people employed, keep operating,” he said. “So we’ve been able to do that through a variety of different combinations, both at a corporate level and then at a local level.”
Paul Kamitsuka, an infectious disease physician at Wilmington Health, believes more people need to mask up as well as get vaccinated to help beat COVID.
“I guess what surprises me most is the number of people I see in grocery stores and other indoor environments who don’t have masks,” Kamitsuka said during a recent WilmingtonBiz Talk. “It really is close to insanity not to mask, given how contagious this virus is. And if you mask and if you have an N95 or KN95, it provides very good protection.”
In addition to distributing masks, Turner said, New Hanover County placed orders for COVID test supplies to be distributed to schools, homeless shelters and community medical providers.