WINCHESTER — The majority of Northwestern Community Services employees have not gotten a COVID-19 vaccination, and that has put a serious wrinkle in the nonprofit's plans to move into a new facility in Frederick County.
Northwestern is a regional health-care agency that offers support and counseling to people trying to overcome mental health or addiction issues. Patients only pay what they can afford, so the agency receives additional operating funds from local, state and federal governments.
Northwestern serves Winchester and Frederick, Clarke, Warren, Shenandoah and Page counties. Its headquarters are in Front Royal but it operates additional clinics and facilities in Winchester, Woodstock, Luray and New Market.
Currently, the agency spends $204,000 per year to lease two Winchester-area buildings — one for a clinic at 158 Front Royal Pike, the other for a psychiatric center for children at 214 S. Braddock St. Northwestern CEO Michael Elwell told City Council on Tuesday that he hopes to merge those two locations into one new building the agency hopes to build in Frederick County, which would reduce its monthly leasing expenses by about $10,000.
"I believe it's going to be a positive," Elwell said on Tuesday.
Although the exact location of the proposed new building in Frederick County has not been disclosed, Elwell is asking permission of the governing bodies in the localities served by Northwestern to approve the agency's plan to seek a $4 million loan to construct the new facility.
On Tuesday, Winchester's City Council seemed receptive to the idea until Elwell started talking about Northwestern's staff and the COVID-19 vaccine. Although all of the agency's approximately 150 employees have been offered inoculations, he said only 45% have agreed to be vaccinated.
"It's not the best number," Elwell admitted.
Elwell said Northwestern has not mandated its employees to be vaccinated because Virginia's governor has not authorized such a mandate. Whether or not workers get the shot is strictly up to them.
"I have difficulty moving this [request to pursue financing] forward knowing this," Winchester Mayor and council President David Smith told Elwell at Tuesday night's council meeting.
Smith was not alone in his concern. Several other councilors expressed frustration with Northwestern's inoculation percentage, especially when it comes to counselors and psychiatric professionals who will not be able to meet with clients face to face due to concerns about contracting the novel coronavirus.
Councilor Kim Herbstritt said telemedicine — sessions that are conducted via videoconference rather than in person — is not effective for all of Northwestern's clients. Some can't afford computers or smart phones, and others are recovering addicts who benefit much more from group settings than they do sitting at home alone.
Councilor Corey Sullivan took issue with Northwestern seeking permission to build a new facility without disclosing its address to the local governments that help to support it.
"We would create a transportation system to shuttle people back and forth," Elwell promised, but he gave few details.
"This feels like a blank check," Sullivan said.
Smith seemed frustrated that Elwell failed to attend a Winchester Finance Committee meeting on April 6 where he could have given council members a heads up about Northwestern's construction plans.
"We could have been further along if you came to the committee meeting," Smith told Elwell.
Elwell said he did not know about the meeting, then continued to press council for an answer about pursuing financing for the proposed new building.
That answer was no.
Council voted 4-4-1 on granting permission to Northwestern to apply for a construction loan, with Councilor Richard Bell abstaining due to a conflict of interest. According to council's bylaws, a tie vote equals a denial.
Elwell left Tuesday night's council meeting without saying if Northwestern plans to continue its effort to consolidate its Winchester-area operations into a new building in Frederick County.
Attending Tuesday night’s City Council meeting in Rouss City Hall were Mayor and council President David Smith, Vice President Kim Herbstritt, Vice Mayor John Hill and members Judy McKiernan, Evan Clark, Les Veach, Corey Sullivan, Richard Bell and Phillip Milstead.