By MARK SCOLFORO and MICHAEL RUBINKAM for the Associated Press
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — 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 coronavirus-related 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 hot-button 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.
Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania.