Commissioner recoils from change in health dept.’s flu vax mandate

A recent change to the local health department’s employee protocol for flu vaccinations seems to have stirred a rather visceral response from the county commissioner attached to Alamance County’s health board.

Commissioner Bill Lashley ultimately cast the lone vote of opposition to this proposal, which the rest of the health board’s members adopted during their latest regularly-scheduled meeting on February 21.

Yet, it appears that Lashley’s defiant response to this change may have been a case where the reaction to the proverbial needle was a bit out of proportion to its actual sting.

According to Alamance County’s health director Tony Lo Giudice, the proposal which Lashley disputed was a relatively minor tweak to an existing rule that the health board had originally enacted in 2015. Lo Giudice noted that, under this rule, the health department’s staff members have been obligated to receive influenza vaccines at the beginning of flu season, and those who abstain from the shots are required to wear masks for the season’s duration.

Lo Giudice added that the proposal on last month’s agenda was largely intended to clean up some of the redundant and confusing language in the existing flu policy.

“We have to review all our policies each year for accreditation,” he went on to explain.

“Anything other than technical changes – meaning grammar and spelling – has to go before the [health] board.”

The health director acknowledged that, in this particular case, the policy’s revised wording contained one substantive change to the exemptions that the health department has traditionally extended to vaccine-averse employees.

Prior to last month’s board meeting, the department granted a medical exemption for staff members who met medically-established criteria to abstain from the flu shot. The department also offered another, catchall exemption for those who didn’t want the vaccine for religious or personal reasons. In either case, employees who received these exemptions were required to file a timely request and to wear surgical masks for the duration of flu season once their request had been granted.

Lo Giudice said that the item on last month’s agenda called for the elimination of the medical exemption in recognition of the all-encompassing nature of the other exemption.”

“In this case, the significant change was revising the language to say ‘declination’ [as opposed to medical or religious exemption]. You can now decline for any reason. We don’t care why you’re declining. Any reason you have for declining is okay with us.”

As trivial as this change may have seemed to Lo Giudice and his colleagues, it felt more like a call to arms to Lashley, who represents Alamance County’s commissioners on the local health board.

Lashley told The Alamance News that he reflexively flinched from this proposed change as soon as he realized it pertained to a vaccination mandate for the health department’s employees.

“They wanted the health board to vote on making it mandatory that if you didn’t take the flu vaccine you had to fill out something to say you didn’t want to take the flu vaccine,” he recalled his initial response, “and if they didn’t take the flu vaccine, they have to wear a mask.”

Lashley admitted that, when he voted against this proposal, he didn’t realize that the essence of what he found so objectionable was already the department’s existing policy. He added, however, that his strong sense of revulsion was also informed by another clash that he previously had with the health department’s top brass when they tried to foist the Covid vaccine on members of the health board, including himself, in addition to their own departmental staff.

“The reason I was touchy about this situation,” he elaborated, “is that just a few years ago, there were people who didn’t want me to be on the board of health because I didn’t want to get the vaccine.”

In the end, Lashley raised the only dissent to the flu protocol updates, which went on to pass by a margin of 4-to-1. This decision effectively brought the matter to a close since the local health board, rather than the county’s board of commissioners, is the final authority on the health department’s personnel policies.

Meanwhile, Lashley is unapologetic about the forcefulness of his objections – even if they were at least partly based on a misunderstanding of the proposal’s significance.

“Maybe I was being a little off base,” he conceded. “But it did hit me wrong, and as I told the doctor who presented it: ‘I’m not getting a flu shot and if you folks think you can make me, you’d better get yourselves a lawyer.’”