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City amends COVID-related workplace policies to align with state, national guidance

BUCKHANNON – City Council on Thursday approved a new approach to tackling COVID-19-related workplace issues that officials hope will simplify return-to-work practices and other items that arise related to the novel coronavirus for city employees and supervisors.

The new approach would call for the city to abide by public health guidance published by local, state and national authorized health agencies instead of redrafting its own city-specific policies.

Essentially, instead of drafting City of Buckhannon-specific policies and protocols, the city will now follow locally, nationally or state-issued public health guidance on issues such as returning to work after testing positive for COVID-19, how long an exposed individual must isolate and more.

City attorney Tom O’Neill said the new approach was a necessary one because public health-related guidance pertaining to a variety of issues surrounding the novel coronavirus is ever-changing, and he wants to avoid situations in which previously issued city policies conflict with the most current guidelines.

O’Neill read from a draft memorandum from council to all city employees regarding the new approach.

“Instead of the city having its own adopted written specific policies on COVID-related issues, the city will … follow the published guidance from national, state and local public health authorities as that guidance is issued by those authorities,” O’Neill read. “Therefore, any existing city policies related to COVID-19 testing, including return-to-work testing and the clearance of any person who has been exposed to COVID-19 or who has tested positive for the disease to return to work or any other issue related … to COVID-19 are deemed amended and modified to reflect the published guidance of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health and the Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department.”

O’Neill explained it’s been challenging for the city to keep its own written policies in alignment with the most current guidance because that guidance is ever-changing. He cited, for instance, the shortened amount of time a COVID-19-exposed individual is required to isolate. (In early December, the CDC reduced the number of days a person must quarantine after coronavirus exposure from 14 days to seven to 10 days, according to multiple media outlets.)

“It’s been difficult for city to keep up with all of the changes, so instead of the city just readopting all the published guidance on its own, the approach would be to just say our written policy is the policy as published by these public health authorities as those may be amended from time to time so that council is not put in a position where its written policies may be a little out of sync with the most recent guidance,” O’Neill said. “That is something that we’ve had to deal with in the last few weeks. That is what this is about.”

Councilman Jack Reger asked about the hierarchy the city would follow; for instance, would federal and state guidance trump local health department recommendations? Reger said he was worried about the possibility of local overreach that could detrimentally impact businesses.

O’Neill replied that state and national policies override any local policies.

“Any local guidance is trumped by state requirements under the West Virginia Constitution,” the city attorney said. “Likely, the hierarchy would actually be state, federal and then local, and to the extent that local guidance is going to be stricter than state guidance to the detriment of the city or a business, I think we would follow the state mandate because under state law, the state Bureau for Public Health trumps a local health department.”

Mayor Robbie Skinner said he “whole-heartedly” supported the move.

“I think it just clears up a lot and allows us to make consistent decisions,” Skinner said.

Councilman Dave Thomas made a motion to approve the memorandum, which was seconded by councilman CJ Rylands prior to passing unanimously.

City finance and administrative director Amberle Jenkins said she was proud of city employees for how they, as essential workers, have handled an extremely stressful situation.

“The City of Buckhannon has had positive cases and/or exposures in every critical infrastructure we’ve got at some point in time since March, and that’s water, sewer, police, fire, waste,” she said. “It’s been stressful at times working through those departments to keep them up and running. The employees and volunteers have been great to continue to work.”

Jenkins said 70-90 percent of the city’s 80-some employees are classified as essential workers.

“They have to continue to work unless they’ve tested positive or unless they’ve got symptoms,” she said, “so they wear their PPE and they come to work and whatever we ask of them, they do it.”

“Each department is equally critical in their service, and I wanted to let them know how proud I am of how they’re handling the situation, and we know there’s many businesses, stores, departments and organizations that are doing the same thing,” Jenkins added. “So, as we near the end of 2020, I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and I know by this time next year we’re going to be celebrating in a whole new way, and I cannot wait.”

Read about CDC guidance related to communities, work and school here and read about the actions the state has taken and executive orders Governor Jim Justice has issued here.

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