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County adds employees to its health insurance premium holiday

By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

[email protected]

The Washington County Commission opted to add two groups of employees to its list of front line workers currently receiving a health insurance premium “holiday.”

During its Wednesday, April 15, meeting held electronically, the commission opted to add 10 employees from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office command staff and IT departments to the county’s plan to pay front line workers’ health insurance premiums during the COVID-19 health crisis.

“I think it is a good thing,” Commissioner Kent Harris said. “As far as I know, we are the only county in our area that has done something for (front line) employees already. I think it says a lot for our commission. I think it would be simple that we approve these 10 additional employees to this health insurance holiday.” 

 The commission first voted to pay front line workers’ insurance premiums during the commission’s Wednesday, April 8, meeting as a way to implement “immediate appreciation” for employees such as emergency management agency personnel and detention officers.

Washington County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Leighta Laitinen said she felt the 10 employees should be added to that list of front line workers due to the constant contact they have with inmates and others during the pandemic.

“Our IT people don’t just sit in an office. Our IT people are all over the jail. Any time there is a security issue or a printer issue they’re in booking, they’re in the pods, they’re around the inmates. They have as much risk as a detention office would,” Laitinen said during the meeting. “And the command staff and majors, if something bad happens, (they are) called out. They are at work everyday and have the potential to be exposed as well. I would just ask you consider those individuals.” 

Washington County Human Resources and Benefits Coordinator Michelle Stewart, who is also the county’s COVID-19 coordinator, said adding the 10 employees will cost $2,960 more, leaving the cost to cover the premiums through the end of June at around $68,000. Those funds are set to come from the county’s health insurance plan fund reserves.

The county also got an update from Dr. David Kirschke, the medical director for the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Department and the Washington County Health Department.

After Commissioner Freddie Malone asked if Krischke felt Washington County had seen it’s “peak” number of cases or if that was still yet to come, Kirschke said that it’s hard to tell if we’ve hit a high in the number of cases in the area, but that social distancing should help lessen that curve. 

“It’s really not clear. The better job we do at social distancing, the less we will have of a peak,” Kirschke said. “If we flatten the curve enough, it will be a pretty flat line of cases. 

“I would say for our area we’ve had way less than 1% of our population that has been infected. So the rest of our population still is susceptible. I think it would be hard to say we’ve peaked anytime in the near future.”

Kirschke added the state has seen more COVID-19 testing, specifically over the weekend, and that the plan going forward is to continue testing and consider the safest way to “reopen” throughout the region after the state’s Safer At Home Order comes to an end on April 30.

“There will just have to be a lot more conversation between public health and local government about what we can safely do, what are some acceptable risks and what things we just don’t want to risk,” Kirschke said. “Even if we do go back to work, we’ll have to think about social distancing and all the prevention stuff to make sure people aren’t coming to work sick.”

The next county commission meeting will be held on Wednesday, April 22, at 6 p.m. To attend the meeting electronically, go to https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4MZUAgq8j-SvzZb_2xucpA. To stay up to date on county meetings, go to http://www.washingtoncountytn.org/events.