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Rep. Jeff Duncan urges SRS contractor to ditch COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Jeff Duncan, ARC, Vaxx SRNS

U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., pictured here speaking to the Aiken Republican Club. (Colin Demarest/Staff)

U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan on Tuesday pressed the president and CEO of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions to walk back a recently unveiled COVID-19 vaccine mandate, suggesting such a policy is legally and ethically dubious.

The South Carolina Republican in a letter dated Sept. 7 said no person should “have to decide between a vaccine and their job, particularly those who have already made such sacrifices in service to our nation.”

While Duncan appreciates the “desire to keep employees safe,” he explained in his letter to Stuart MacVean, the boss, “a mandatory vaccine policy is shortsighted, could potentially violate the law, and may not be in the best interest of the employees.”

A spokesperson for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the management-and-operations contractor at the Savannah River Site, on Tuesday afternoon said the congressman’s concerns were appreciated. However, the spokesperson continued, “we believe that the COVID-19 vaccine is the most effective tool available to protect the health and safety of our workforce, which continues to be our top priority.”

As the top contractor at the Savannah River Site – a 310-square-mile Department of Energy reservation south of Aiken – Savannah River Nuclear Solutions is in charge of day-to-day operations as well as more specific national security missions: the handling of tritium for the Department of Defense and the U.S. nuclear arsenal, for example.

MacVean last week announced vaccination against COVID-19 would soon become a condition of employment; all regular employees, subcontractors, teleworkers and new hires, among others, will need to get the jabs. The company is far from the first to require it.

“OSHA has declared COVID-19 a workplace hazard, and we have been looking at our mitigation control practices to use all the options we have to ensure the safety of our team,” MacVean wrote in a dispatch to workers. “The FDA approval for the Pfizer vaccine provides us with the most effective tool to help ensure a safe work environment and better protect us from serious illness due to the virus.”

A vaccination deadline at SRNS had not been locked in as of Sept. 2.

“We understand that the choice to receive a vaccination will be difficult for many of you,” MacVean said at the time. “We encourage you to discuss questions or concerns with your personal medical doctor or to consult with other trusted health providers.”

An overwhelming number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in studied portions of June, July and August were among those not fully vaccinated, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

More than 160 Savannah River Site employees were quarantined with COVID-19 as of Sept. 2. MacVean in his message last week said 11 “of our team members here at the site have been hospitalized in the last two months and four of them have passed because of this terrible disease.”

“The average age of the deceased employees was 48,” he continued, “and we understand that they were unvaccinated.”

Duncan on Facebook said he is not anti-vaccine, but rather anti-mandate. In his letter, the congressman said the choice should be personal.

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the Energy Department, its NNSA, and government and politics, in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin.

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