Wolf tells 25K state health, prison workers: vaccine or test

HARRISBURG (AP) — Some 25,000 employees of Pennsylvania’s prisons and state health care and congregate care facilities have about a month to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or take weekly tests for the virus, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Tuesday.

Wolf said workers in those jobs — and all new hires at those facilities — have until Sept. 7 to get fully vaccinated. In addition to the Corrections Department, it applies to state hospitals, veterans’ homes, community health centers, and homes for those with intellectual disabilities.

The state Health Department said this week that 63.8% of adult state residents are fully vaccinated, although there were nearly 4,100 positive cases over a recent three-day stretch. So far, more than 1.2 million Pennsylvanians have been infected with the coronavirus and nearly 28,000 have died from it.

The two-week moving average of cases has been on the rise in Pennsylvania, where daily vaccinations have recently averaged about 14,000 people.

Starting Oct. 1, all state workers under Wolf’s jurisdiction who prove they are fully vaccinated will also be given an extra day off of work as an incentive to increase the vaccination rate.

“We want to reward those who have already gotten the vaccine and encourage those who have not yet decided to get the vaccine, to get the vaccine,” the Democratic governor said at a news conference in Harrisburg to lay out the new policy and encourage vaccinations generally.

State House Republican caucus spokesman Jason Gottesman said Wolf was getting involved in private health care decisions “and coercing hesitant Pennsylvanians to get the vaccine, which is ultimately a private matter between the individual and their health care provider.”

A spokesman for the correctional officers’ union offered no immediate comment, saying the policy changes are under review.

Wolf’s policy directive stops well short of requiring all state workers he oversees — which is most of them — to get vaccinated or tested and he has said he does not expect to require schoolchildren to wear masks as the academic year approaches.

“As well as we’re doing, it’s not good enough. With the vaccine we actually have the ability to do even better,” Wolf said.

Early last month, he vetoed a Republican-crafted bill to ban so-called COVID-19 “vaccine passports” in some cases and to restrict the health secretary’s actions during health emergencies.

The vetoed bill would have prevented colleges and universities that receive state money from mandating proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter buildings, attend class in person or undertake any activity. State and local governmental entities would have been similarly restricted, and governments would not have been allowed to include coronavirus vaccine status on ID cards.