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Florida fines county more than $3.5 million for requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID

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A Florida county has been fined more than $3.5 million for requiring county employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The state Department of Health issued a statement on Tuesday, saying that Leon County violated the state's vaccine passport ban 714 times.

The state sent a notice of violation to Leon County administrator Vincent Long on October 6, saying that the county's vaccine requirement for employees is in violation of a state law that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced in September. Under the law, government agencies that force a vaccine as a condition of employment can be fined $5,000 for every instance of doing so. 

DeSantis had said that the law was issued in an effort to "stand up for freedom." 

Leon County first required that all employees be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 on July 28, according to the state. Employees were required to provide a vaccine verification to the government's human resources department no later than October 1. The state said that 700 county government employees provided such documentation, and that within a few days, 14 employees were fired for their refusal or failure to do so. 

The county said on October 2 that 30 employees received a medical or religious exemption from the vaccine, and that in all, less than 2% of employees did not prove they were vaccinated.

The 714 violations, the state said, accrued a fine of more than $3.5 million that the county must pay within 30 days.  

"It is unacceptable that Leon County violated Florida law, infringed on current and former employee's medical privacy, and fired loyal public servants because of their personal health decisions," DeSantis said in a statement. "We will continue fighting for Floridians' rights and the Florida Department of Health will continue to enforce the law. We're going to stand up for Floridians' jobs, stand up for Floridians' livelihoods, and stand up for freedom." 

According to state data, 60% of Leon County residents ages 12 and older have been vaccinated against COVID-19. From October 1 through October 7, the county had 354 cases. As the number of vaccinated people in the state continues to increase, the weekly COVID case count has declined.

Joseph Ladap, the state's new surgeon general, said in a statement that firing people over vaccines "has real and lasting consequences." 

"It leads to resentment in the workplace, and loss of employment impacts individual and public health," he said in a statement. "Individuals have every right to choose how to best protect themselves and their families." 

Long, however, said in a statement on Tuesday that the county's actions were necessary, and developed with information from expert public health guidance.

"The County strongly contends that our employee vaccination requirement was not only completely legally justifiable, but it was a necessary and responsible action to take to keep our employees safe, protect the public, and ensure our readiness as a frontline response organization," he said. 

Long said the county is prepared to "enforce its rights using any remedies available." 

"The Governor's position in this instance unfortunately appears to be less of a public health strategy and more about political strategy," he said. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and numerous health officials have urged the public to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to curb the spread. In the workplace, the CDC has recommended the vaccine, while also saying businesses can adhere to medical and religious exemptions. More than 187.7 million people have been vaccinated as of Tuesday, according to the CDC, and more than 8.5 million have already received a booster dose. 

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