Prison guard vaccinations increase after governor’s mandate

Coronavirus

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The number of vaccinated state prison system employees has nearly doubled in the two months since Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf mandated vaccines or weekly testing to help contain the coronavirus, a policy prison guards unsuccessfully challenged in court.

The Corrections Department said Friday more than 6,700 workers have now been vaccinated, nearly 43% of the total and an increase from about 3,600 in early August. The number not vaccinated has fallen from about 12,300 to 9,100.

Last week, a Commonwealth Court judge threw out a lawsuit by the prison guards’ union that sought to stop the policy unless inmates, visitors and outside vendors are also subject to the requirement.

The prison agency said thousands of tests have been performed since the vax-or-test mandate went into effect Sept. 7. The testing process is currently being refined so that discipline applies only to those who are truly refusing to comply, not people who have valid reasons for not being tested, such as being on leave or otherwise exempt.

“At this point, no DOC employee has been terminated for refusing to test,” Corrections spokesperson Maria Bivens said in an email. “While resignations and retirements have occurred since the mandate was announced and implemented, the separation rate has not been significantly different from the same time period in previous years, and we are unaware of any individuals specifically citing the mandate as a reason for voluntary separation.”

Wolf, a Democrat, ordered about 25,000 employees of prisons and state health care and congregate care facilities to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or take weekly tests for the virus. Along with prisons, it applies to state hospitals, veterans’ homes, community health centers and homes for those with intellectual disabilities.

The Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association objected, calling the policy a slap in the face. They sued, asking Commonwealth Court to stop the policy, but on Sept. 28, Commonwealth Court Judge Michael Wojcik dismissed the case, citing the government’s sovereign immunity.

Union president John Eckenrode said in a statement Friday that the guards were disappointed and disagree with the decision.

About 5,200 state correctional employees have caught the virus, in a department with about 12,000 total workers.

In a staff memo Sept. 3, the Corrections Department outlined where to lodge requests for religious or medical exceptions. Unvaccinated workers will have to be tested until decisions are made on their exemption requests, the agency said.

The prison system only permits visitors for inmates who are vaccinated, although the visitors are not required to have a vaccine or to be tested.

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