Officials at Santa Clara County’s largest water supplier defended their position after a whistleblower publicly accused the agency of retaliating against employees unvaccinated for COVID-19.
An unknown whistleblower calling himself “John Public” commented at a Valley Water meeting on June 28 and released a video on YouTube, which is no longer available, claiming the district’s vaccination policy is discriminatory. Valley Water requires all workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, unless they have an approved medical or religious exemption.
As of July, 98.82% of Valley Water’s 851 employees are vaccinated, spokesperson Matt Keller told San José Spotlight. CEO Rick Callender said in a statement last week that with COVID infections still high, the public health emergency necessitates upholding the vaccination policy. As of July 21, the seven-day rolling average of new reported infections in the county is 939, down from last month’s average of 1,099 on June 28.
“Our critical infrastructure provides water to residents and businesses,” Callender wrote. “While we understand there may be a few people who disagree with the policy, it is necessary during this time to follow the science and our public health leaders, not just for us, but for the people we serve.”
The whistleblower disagreed, writing in a letter that, “The district has forced many of us out of their livelihoods already and the process is to put you through great duress/coercion. To be treated in this discipline process is nothing short of a beat down to submit or lose it all and denounce your faith!”
His video, which contained copyrighted logos and clips, was soon hit with a claim from Valley Water’s attorney Juan Carlos-Orellana and removed from public access. Carlos-Orellana was not available to comment, a Valley Water spokesperson said.
The anonymous whistleblower said via email he thinks his video was removed because Valley Water did not like his claims that the company mishandled a vaccination mandate. He claims Valley Water used COVID-19 data to justify the vaccine mandate even though some people who were vaccinated still got sick.
He also said he and other employees had exemptions denied for nonspecific reasons.
“Those who got their religious exemptions denied were put on a discipline process that leads up to termination,” he claimed.
Callender said he doesn’t know who the anonymous source is, but is familiar with the video. He said the video used confidential staff information.
“We follow the county Public Health advice, we follow the CDC advice and as an agency that is what we followed,” he said. “It sounds like the anonymous source is not following the CDC or public health advice or explanation.”
Valley Water decided to pursue a 100% employee vaccination rate, Keller said, after the county suggested businesses and government agencies implement mandatory vaccination requirements. Last fall, the water district required unvaccinated staff to test weekly.
In January, the district told workers to submit proof of full vaccination by March 1. Unvaccinated employees had to request an exemption for medical or religious reasons. Failure to provide proof of full vaccination would result in disciplinary action including termination, according to the policy.
“We also implemented a mandatory vaccination policy for all new hires, requiring they provide proof of full vaccination absent an approved medical or religious exemption prior to their start date,” Keller said. He said of 36 employees who asked for exemptions, three have received them to date. The district will not comment on how many employees have been fired or quit because of the policy.
Not applicable to board members
Although workers have mostly adhered to the mandate, the requirement does not apply to board members, Keller said.
Callender told San José Spotlight on Friday the board, as elected officials, does not have a vaccine requirement for themselves and they do not have to provide vaccination records as they are not employees. He said board members are all concerned about not getting infected with COVID, all being over the age of 50 with some concerned about health conditions.
“They don’t want to get sick from members of the public or staff,” Callender said. “People are still dying from this.”
San Jose Water Company was contacted for comment about whether its policy is similar to Valley Water’s, but did not respond.
George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at UC San Francisco, said he thinks policies like Valley Water’s are vital to preventing the transmission and spread of viral diseases like COVID-19.
“You always have to have vaccinations as the bedrock on which all other guidelines are built,” Rutherford told San José Spotlight.
He said three variants are circulating and only 71.5% of Californians are fully vaccinated. Even people who received a booster last winter do not have full protection against infection, even though they have protection against hospitalization and death.
“No vaccine is 100% perfect because the amount of virus when (a person) gets infected varies,” he said.
Contact Natalie Hanson at [email protected] or @nhanson_reports on Twitter.
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