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St. Louis County workers get free health care for vaccine injuries. Page pledges veto

A screenshot of the October 26, 2021 meeting of the St. Louis County Council.
Screenshot / Rachel Lippmann
Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, and County Executive Sam Page listen to the meeting of the St. Louis County Council on Tuesday.

The St. Louis County Council on Tuesday approved a bill that would provide free lifetime health care for county employees who get the COVID-19 vaccine to avoid being suspended without pay or fired, and are then injured by the vaccine.

The 4-2 vote is not enough to override a planned veto from County Executive Sam Page.

“Vaccines are safe and effective, and our way out of the pandemic,” his spokesman said in a statement.

Council Chair Rita Heard Days, a Democrat, joined Republicans Tim Fitch, Mark Harder and Ernie Trakas to support the legislation. Democratic Councilwomen Lisa Clancy and Shalonda Webb were opposed. Councilwoman Kelly Dunaway, also a Democrat, was not at the meeting but said she would not have supported the bill.

The legislation, sponsored by Fitch, applies only to workers who have been notified they will be suspended without pay or fired if they don’t get the vaccine, and then choose to have the shot. It requires the county to provide “necessary medical treatment” for “any illness or injury to the employee that is directly caused by the vaccine.” It does not specify how serious the illness or injury has to be to access the medical care.

An employee who wants to claim the benefit would have to undergo medical testing by a doctor chosen by the county, who would then consult with the employee's regular doctor. Disputes between the doctors would be resolved by the courts.

The bill also authorizes a $1 million benefit to survivors of a county employee who gets the vaccine to avoid unpaid suspension or termination and dies as a result. And fully vaccinated individuals who have to quarantine because of a breakthrough coronavirus case would not have to use paid time off.

Fitch did not speak about his legislation Tuesday night, but he opposed the adoption of the county’s employee vaccine mandate. The county’s mandate includes a provision that allows for weekly testing instead of vaccination, which means it is unlikely someone would currently face unpaid suspension or firing for not getting a shot.

Page’s office said no one had yet been disciplined for failing to abide by the testing and masking requirements, though “disciplinary actions will be issued moving forward.” A spokesman added that he was unaware of any employee who had left St. Louis County government specifically because of the mandate.

The federal government already provides compensation for people who have been hurt by the coronavirus vaccines, through the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program. (It is separate from a program that deals with injuries from regular vaccines such as childhood immunizations and the yearly flu shot.) As of Oct. 1, there were claims of 1,357 people being injured or killed by a COVID-19 vaccine, out of 191 million people who have been fully vaccinated in the United States.

So far, the program has not paid out any money for COVID-19 claims. One claim is eligible, although it’s not clear whether it is related to a vaccine or another protective measure such as treatment with drugs like remdesivir or hydroxychloroquine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracks unexpected medical problems after vaccines, found that serious side effects are exceedingly rare. For example, anaphylactic shock occurred in no more than five people per million vaccinated, and heart inflammation occurred in fewer than 1,000 people total. Even the blood clots that led to a pause in distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in April occurred in 0.0003% of cases.

That did not stop many speakers during public comment from making outlandish and false claims about the virus and the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. Similar comments got recordings of past County Council meetings pulled from YouTube because of the platform’s misinformation policy.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.