Decatur budgets $125K for COVID-19 tests for unvaccinated city employees

Only a handful of metro Atlanta cities require weekly coronavirus tests for employees who won’t get vaccinated
Decatur City Hall from December 2020.

Credit: Google Maps

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Decatur City Hall from December 2020.

Credit: Google Maps

Dozens of Decatur city employees have declined to get vaccinated for COVID-19, meaning they’ll soon have to get tested at least once a week to start their shifts.

While Decatur isn’t the only city requiring employees to get vaccinated or submit to frequent nose swabs, it is the first one to pay to bring testing services to City Hall.

Decatur City Commissioners voted unanimously Monday to use $125,000 of federal pandemic relief funds to provide on-site testing services for unvaccinated employees. City Manager Andrea Arnold said the six-figure sum is an estimate based on the city’s current vaccination rate for full-time employees, which is 72%.

About 55 full-time employees are not vaccinated. Arnold said part-time workers are harder to quantify, given many are seasonal or work irregular shifts. She expects more employees to choose to get vaccinated, allowing the city to save some of the money budgeted for this effort.

“I’m certainly optimistic that we’re not going to need the full $125,000,” Arnold told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I would consider that a worst case scenario based on the numbers that we know today.”

Decatur is among four DeKalb County cities to require employees to get the shot or get tested. The other cities — Avondale Estates, Brookhaven and Doraville — have slightly higher vaccination rates, and all four have higher vaccination rates than Atlanta, whose leaders encourage but don’t require it. Most metro Atlanta cities do not track vaccination rates among their employees.

According to the most recent data from the county, DeKalb reported 590 cases between Oct. 28 and Nov. 10, which is about 74 cases for every 100,000 residents. In comparison, that’s slightly below the 91 cases per 100,000 that was recorded by the Georgia Department of Public Health over that time frame. DeKalb reports a countywide vaccination rate of 53% for residents.

Ellen Powell, spokeswoman for Avondale Estates, said the city saw nearly a 10% increase in employee vaccinations since their policy went into effect Aug. 10. She said the city has offered to cover the costs of testing. That hasn’t cost the city a dime so far.

“The city has said that they will reimburse for any documented cost for the testing,” Powell said. “But honestly, we haven’t received any requests for reimbursement. There haven’t been any costs affiliated with that (testing) that we have come across.”

Decatur announced it would adopt its vaccine mandate in late September, and its vaccination rate among employees also increased by nearly 10%. New hires are also required to be vaccinated.

Arnold said Decatur’s decision to bring testing to City Hall was to lessen the burden on city employees. She said American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds will pay for the testing initiative. Decatur’s allocation of ARPA funds is nearly $10.9 million.

“The cost of the city per test is relatively low,” Arnold said. “We have the economies of scale of purchasing (these tests), and also I think there is a convenience factor that employees when they’re reporting to work can also get their tests prior to their shift.”

The city is paying for rapid tests so employees will get their results back within 15 minutes. The commission approved a program budget of $75,000 for the COVID-19 tests, $25,000 for staffing costs, $20,000 for personal protective equipment and $5,000 for other supplies.

Decatur will begin requiring unvaccinated employees to get tested up to twice a week starting Dec. 2. Arnold said she hopes more city employees will decide to get the shot or will turn in their vaccination paperwork by the end of the month.

“Our goal is for as many employees as possible to get vaccinated,” Arnold said. “Clearly that is the goal within the larger goal of creating a safe workplace and ensuring that we have a safe environment and that we’re essentially doing no harm when we’re interacting with people in the community.”

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