Many state employees remain unvaccinated despite mandate

By: - September 22, 2021 12:03 am

Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a press conference Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021, where he announced COVID-19 vaccines would be mandatory for state employees. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Last month, Gov. Ralph Northam gave state employees a choice: get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing for COVID-19.

Many, it appears, have chosen testing.

While comprehensive figures aren’t available yet, a survey of some of the largest state agencies reveals employee vaccination rates range from just over 50 percent at the Department of Corrections to 87 percent at the Virginia Department of Health.

Other agencies, including the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Virginia State Police, reported vaccination rates that roughly mirror the state’s overall vaccination rate of about 60 percent.

Northam wrote in his Aug. 5 executive directive that “vaccination is the only method to protect fully against the virus.” But unlike a similar order issued by President Joe Biden for the federal workforce, Northam’s directive did not actually require state employees to be vaccinated. Instead, it asked them to disclose their vaccination status and, if they are unvaccinated, submit to weekly testing at the state’s expense.

The directive does not require unvaccinated employees to request a formal exemption, but it does allow employees to opt out of the weekly testing if they lodge a religious rejection or have a medical reason — a step few state employees appear to have taken.

The testing required under the mandate has come at a cost to taxpayers.

The Department of Corrections, which is the largest state agency with about 11,000 employees and has implemented more stringent testing requirements of once-every-three-days for frontline employees, reported testing about 900 employees over a recent 24-hour period at a cost of about $14 per test. That works out to about $12,600 in one day.

State agencies have also been instructed that employee testing, which takes between 15 and 30 minutes, should be conducted on the clock, meaning unvaccinated employees are paid to take the tests. And in some cases, that means unvaccinated employees can earn overtime to take tests, though the state’s human resources guidance encourages supervisors to find time in employees’ regular schedules.

Procedures vary by department, but at the DOC, spokesman Benjamin Jarvela said some of the over-the-counter antigen tests the department administers are taken on site with the results verified by an observer. In other cases, employees are allowed to take the tests at home and report results on an honor system.

So far, the Department of Corrections appears to have one of the lowest vaccination rates among state agencies surveyed. The number of staff members vaccinated also compares poorly to the vaccination rate among prisoners, which sits at just under 70 percent.

DOC statistics show that even before the testing requirements were implemented on Sept. 1, COVID-19 infections among staff have outpaced those among prisoners for weeks, a reversal from the height of the pandemic. At last report, 120 staff members had “active cases” compared to 84 among prisoners.

The DOC’s numbers suggest its overall vaccination rate could improve in the coming weeks: The department reported 1,333 staff members are partially vaccinated.

While individual state agencies are tracking vaccination rates and testing results of employees, the state’s Department of Human Resource Management is still in the process of aggregating and compiling the data, said a spokeswoman for the department, Anne Waring.

The Mercury asked for vaccination statistics from the six largest state agencies: the Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, Department of Corrections, Virginia State Police, Department of Motor Vehicles, Department of Health, and Virginia Department of Transportation. Together they employ nearly 30,000 of the roughly 120,000 state employees who are covered by the directive. Their combined vaccination rate is 63 percent, slightly above the state’s overall vaccination rate but below the 70 percent vaccination rate for people aged 18 and up.

Only one of the agencies, the Department of Motor Vehicles, has reported pursuing disciplinary action against an employee for refusing to disclose their vaccination status. “DMV is adhering to the Commonwealth’s Standards of Conduct and pursuing appropriate disciplinary action,” spokeswoman Jessica Cowardin said in an email.

Other agencies, like the liquor authority where 40 employees fall into the “refuse to disclose” category, say they haven’t gotten to that stage yet. “To comply with the Executive Order, we have first focused on gathering information as it relates to an employee’s vaccination status,” said a spokeswoman for ABC, Valerie Hubbard. “In the next stage of the process, the authority will engage in the interactive process for those who refused to disclose or are unvaccinated to determine if an accommodation is needed.”

Public health experts said testing requirements can be a useful tool to reduce the spread of COVD-19, but that it shouldn’t be used as an alternative to vaccinations.

“That would be a mistake,” said Dr. Taison Bell, an infectious disease specialist at UVA. “You should definitely push as hard as you can to vaccinate. I would require vaccinations in congregate settings, in addition to doing testing. We know we have this variant that’s way more infectious than prior.”

Bell also questioned policies that allow employees to take tests off-site and self-report results. “I think the benefit of having the rapid test is you actually can do it on-site — you don’t have to rely on the honor system,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Northam, Alena Yarmosky, said in an email that Northam continues “to consider a range of options to boost vaccination.” But otherwise she framed the state’s approach a model the private sector should follow.

“This program is helping to encourage vaccination and keep our valuable workforce safe,” she said. “Again, we urge all Virginia localities and private businesses to follow our lead.”

Mercury reporter Kate Masters contributed. 

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.