Centre Daily Times

Prison guards union asks court to review vax-or-test mandate

- BY MARK SCOLFORO AND MICHAEL RUBINKAM

The union that represents correction­s officers in Pennsylvan­ia prisons wants a state court to intervene over the governor’s recent mandate that they all get coronaviru­s vaccines or submit to weekly testing.

The six-page Commonweal­th Court complaint over a rule Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf announced last month requests that the court issue a preliminar­y injunction to end mandatory testing unless inmates, visitors and outside vendors are also subject to the requiremen­t.

“The entry of a preliminar­y injunction is necessary in order to maintain the equity” between members of the Pennsylvan­ia State Correction­s Officers Associatio­n “and all other participan­ts in the commonweal­th controlled congregate settings, and to further ensure the intent of the order itself,” which is to protect the public from COVID-19, according to the lawsuit filed Friday.

“The commonweal­th’s failure to apply the ‘vaccinate or weekly test’ rule to all individual­s in the congregate setting unnecessar­ily increases the risk to the health and safety” of union members, the lawsuit claims.

Wolf a month ago announced that about 25,000 employees of Pennsylvan­ia’s prisons and state health care and congregate care facilities would have to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 7 or take weekly tests for the virus. In addition to the Correction­s Department, it applies to state hospitals, veterans’ homes, community health centers and homes for those with intellectu­al disabiliti­es.

Wolf press secretary Lyndsay Kensinger declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit but called the union’s opposition to the pandemic mitigation “extremely disappoint­ing.”

“This is an initiative that incentiviz­es employees who work

with our most vulnerable population­s to protect themselves, their families and those they work amongst. Our correction­s officers work hard every day to ensure the public’s safety and this initiative gives them the tools to protect themselves and their families and coworkers,” Kensinger said in a statement.

The union noted it also filed a labor grievance over the policy last week, charging that the Wolf administra­tion implemente­d the policy unilateral­ly and that it took “discrimina­tory/disparate” actions that are creating unsafe working conditions. The grievance will take until at least early next year to get to a hearing, the filing said.

In a memo to staff Sept. 3, the Correction­s Department said requests for religious or medical exceptions can be submitted through the agency’s employee self-service system. Unvaccinat­ed workers will have to be tested until decisions are made on their exemption requests.

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.

The union says more than 3,700 of its members have been infected with the virus since the pandemic began.

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.

Last week, a Wolf administra­tion mandate went into place requiring that students, staff and visitors at K-12 schools and child care facilities wear masks while indoors, regardless of vaccinatio­n status.

Some 67% of Pennsylvan­ia adults were fully vaccinated as of Monday, according to federal data, with nearly 15,000 people per day getting their shots – not enough to prevent a recent surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitaliz­ations and deaths.

Pennsylvan­ia is averaging about 4,000 new, confirmed infections per day, around 25 times the daily rate two months ago, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The average number of people hospitaliz­ed with COVID-19 is up more than sevenfold since July, to about 2,000. COVID-19 is killing about 24 Pennsylvan­ia residents daily.

In other coronaviru­srelated developmen­ts in Pennsylvan­ia on Monday:

INFECTIONS IN CHILDREN

School-aged children in Pennsylvan­ia are becoming infected with the coronaviru­s at much greater rates than at this time last year, according to data released by the state Health Department.

Nearly 5,400 children between the ages of 5 and 18 tested positive in the first week of September – nearly 10 times as many children who tested positive in the year-ago period, according to health officials.

The delta variant of the coronaviru­s is far more transmissi­ble than earlier versions, and children under 12 remain ineligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. Moreover, mask-wearing at schools has been a hotbutton issue as the academic year gets underway, with some districts allowing students to avoid a statewide mask mandate with a parent’s signature.

Health officials said they can’t break down where the infected children were exposed to the virus, and caution it wasn’t necessaril­y in school or at day care.

Cumulative­ly, more than 13,500 school-age children have tested positive since mid-August, according to the Health Department. About 2,700 younger children, from infancy through age 4, gave been infected since Aug. 16.

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