When county officials asked Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden to opt his department into a county government initiative requiring employees to show proof of COVID vaccination or submit to regular testing, he said no. 

“I’m leaving it up to our officers,” he said.

Sheriff’s deputies worked throughout the pandemic interfacing with the public even when the vaccine wasn’t available. Hayden also isn’t requiring deputies to wear masks when on patrol, but deputies mask up in county detention centers.

County Manager Penny Postoak Ferguson recently announced a vaccination and testing policy for county employees. Under the policy, most unvaccinated county employees must submit to COVID testing once per week. Some unvaccinated employees must test twice per week.  County Commissioners also ordered masks on children ages 12 and under in school, but several attorneys say schools can opt out if they wish.

Postoak Ferguson said fewer than half of the county’s employees, about 46% as of Aug. 11, are fully vaccinated. According to the county health department dashboard, that’s less than the percentage of the general population vaccinated for COVID. As of Aug. 20, 58.7% of county residents are vaccinated.

Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden

Hayden’s general instructions to deputies:

“If somebody asks you to put on a mask, be courteous and put one on,” he said. “Use some common sense. Be courteous. Just be decent about it.”

Hayden oversees about 700 employees in the sheriff’s department. Though the sheriff isn’t requiring vaccines or mandating testing, Hayden ordered rapid saliva test kits that department employees can use as needed. About 138 officers have tested positive for COVID throughout the pandemic. 

“So far, everybody has made it back to work,” he said.

Hayden himself battled the illness back in November.

He’s received some flack for breaking with the county on mandating tests and vaccinations. The Kansas City Star editorialized that it’s “a dereliction of duty” Hayden “to flout” the COVID directive. However, Hayden said the public’s response is mostly positive.

“I’ve had a lot of people calling and thanking us for standing up,” he said. “It’s kind of nice.”

However, Hayden is a duly elected sheriff. Postoak-Ferguson is hired by the county commission to oversee day-to-day interactions. Commissioners did not vote on the employee vaccine mandate.

According to former county commissioner Mike Brown, the mandate could fuel mass retirements and employee departures.

“I have had several department heads who have called me to say that they’re going to lose good people over this,” Brown said. “They are going to quit if this is how it’s going to be.”

The sheriff’s department was short 60 officers when Hayden first took office. The staffing shortage has since dissolved. Still, many officers are approaching retirement eligibility. Hayden said they have enough to worry about without adding vaccine pressure to the list.

“Our officers, between all of the social stuff and the anti-police movement, they’ve had enough pressure on them,” he said. “They need to have some element of control in their lives. I’m not going to put this pressure on them.”

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