STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi city says its employees who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 will pay higher health insurance rates, will be required to wear masks in many places on the job and will have to use sick leave days if they contract the virus.
Starkville city employees who are vaccinated will receive up to five additional paid sick days if they contract COVID-19 and an additional day if they are not feeling well after receiving the vaccine, the Commercial Dispatch reported.
The Starkville Board of Aldermen voted 5-2 Tuesday to set the policy, which includes a $75 extra yearly insurance charge for unvaccinated city workers. It specifies that all unvaccinated city employees must wear masks in all indoor locations unless in a private office and in outdoor settings where 6 feet (1.8 meters) of distance from other employees is not possible.
Failure to comply can result in an employee being fired. Mayor Lynn Spruill proposed the policy. She said it does not require workers to receive the vaccine but it gives incentives to those who are vaccinated. Mississippi has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation and hospitals across the state have been overrun this summer with COVID-19 patients, the majority of whom are unvaccinated.
Firefighter Joseph Diaz spoke against the policy.
“I will not comply with your policy of discrimination against those that have not taken the COVID shot,” Diaz said to the board. “You will have to terminate me. I have not come here to convince you of the correctness of my stance. … From now on, my voice and the voice of like-minded employees will be best heard through our actions.”
Starkville Fire Department Lt. Paramedic Chance Cummings said he is “not anti-vaccination but pro-choice.” He said Starkville has “claimed to be a city of inclusiveness” by having Pride events and marches for racial justice.
“I guess the pride for the LGBTQ+ community and the Black lives only matter if they’re vaccinated,” Cummings said.
David Buys, a professor in the Mississippi State University Department of Food Science, Nutrition and Health Promotion, said public policy and public health are aligned. He spoke in favor of the new policy, saying the board should take all measures to reduce the spread of the virus.
“I would argue that this is a medical freedom — that masking is a medical freedom issue,” Buys said. “It gives my children who are not able to be vaccinated the freedom to go to the grocery store with me, and my wife and I don’t have to decide which one is going and which one is keeping the kids.”