Suspensions will begin next week for a handful of Ramsey County employees who have refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or provide weekly test results showing they are not infected with the virus, a county spokesman said.

The unpaid, five-day suspensions come after weeks of negotiations about the county's policy passed in November that, similar to those in Hennepin County and elsewhere, back up the vaccination requirements with discipline.

A total of 213 people, or about 1 in 20 of Ramsey County's 4,245 employees, have not yet complied. About half of those are in the Sheriff's Office, while the rest are a collection of people who have refused to vaccinate or get tested, had a technical glitch with the certification process, are new employees or are on leave.

At least two Ramsey County employees who oppose taking the COVID vaccine or getting a test were handed suspension notices Thursday after they got their Loudermill hearing, a meeting in which a public employee presents their side of a dispute when facing discipline. The suspensions are scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. Tuesday.

At the beginning of this week, the county had 213 employees who were not certified: 103 were in the Sheriff's Office; 18 were from other departments; 13 said they were vaccinated but something in their paperwork was incomplete; 14 were recently hired and are expected to certify within the first few days of their new job; and 65 are on leave or in an intermittent status and not actively working.

The county continues to "actively work" with the Sheriff's Office to determine vaccination status or get compliance, according to spokesman John Siqveland. The union representing Sheriff's Office deputies has called the county's position "draconian," saying deputies had legitimate privacy concerns about their medical data and didn't want to reveal their vaccination status.

No deputy sheriffs have been issued a suspension, according to Allison Schaber, president of the Ramsey County Deputies' Federation. The department sent out its own COVID vaccination policy one week ago, stating all Sheriff's Office employees must be vaccinated or submit to regular testing by March 1. Under the sheriff's vaccination policy, all medical data will be retained by the Sheriff's Office and not entered into the county's personnel-management software. Siqveland said Chief Deputy Dave Metusalem made a commitment with county leaders to bring the office into compliance.

Beyond the Sheriff's Office, those who disagree with the county's vaccination policy have struggled to accept it. A longtime Ramsey County employee who said she was vaccinated last fall said she left her job this month anyway due to stress brought on by the vaccination requirement.

Kelly Loude, who worked in administration for 17 years, said office morale became "toxic" in recent weeks as the county pursued suspensions of noncompliant employees. She worried about her health as dread of going to the office each day grew worse.

"It's very bittersweet, but the way the dynamics changed it was either me or my life," Loude said. She said she's not generally anti-vaccine, but she had hesitations about the COVID vaccine, and it was only after the county required it that she got the jab.

She and her husband were in Florida earlier this year and came down with breakthrough COVID infections despite being vaccinated. Loude said she doesn't know if the sickness would have been worse without the vaccine, but she feels that the county shouldn't have forced people to take it.

"I think it's more of a personal thing," she said.