Prison guards union warns Wolf of legal action over vaccine or test policy

Nursing home operators appear to be split over a similar policy announced today

  • Mark Scolforo/The Associated Press
  • Michael Rubinkam/Associated Press

(Harrisburg) — The union that represents about 10,000 guards in Pennsylvania’s state prisons told Gov. Tom Wolf Thursday it plans legal action to stop his effort to force them to get COVID-19 vaccines over the next month.

The president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association sent a letter to the Democratic governor two days after Wolf ordered the guards and some other state workers to get fully vaccinated by Sept. 7 or face weekly testing.

Union president John Eckenrode told Wolf his policy announcement was “a slap in the face — and frankly, way too late because thousands of our members already have been infected, due to your inaction.”

“This is the latest episode of what has been a woefully inconsistent vaccination/testing/masking policy by this administration in our state prisons,” Eckenrode wrote, adding the union “has instructed legal counsel to challenge this latest proposed policy change.”

Wolf press secretary Lyndsay Kensinger said Thursday the initiative was designed to protect the guards, their families and the people they work among.

“The union exists to protect and support the employees it represents, so the corrections union’s opposition to this initiative to stop the spread of COVID-19 is extremely disappointing,” Kensinger said.

The Corrections Department’s website indicates about 4,800 of the prison system’s more than 12,000 staff have been infected by the coronavirus, and the union says nearly 3,700 of its members have caught COVID-19. The department says about 3,600 correctional employees are currently fully vaccinated.

Eckenrode told Wolf that the plan for testing won’t make people safer because it does not extend to inmates’ family members, contractors, vendors and volunteers.

“As for masking, our members are required to wear them, but inmates are not,” Eckenrode said, arguing that the masking policy does not make places where people congregate inside prisons safer.

Wolf announced Tuesday the vaccination policy that covers about 25,000 employees of state prisons and state health care and congregate care facilities. It applies to prisons as well as state hospitals, veterans’ homes, community health centers and homes for those with intellectual disabilities.

In other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania on Thursday:

Vaccines for nursing home workers

A resident of St. Anne Home sits bathed in sunlight streaming through a stained glass window during morning Mass attended by nuns and residents of the nursing facility in Greensburg, Pa., on Thursday, March 25, 2021.

Jessie Wardarski / AP Photo

FILE PHOTO: A resident of St. Anne Home sits bathed in sunlight streaming through a stained glass window during morning Mass attended by nuns and residents of the nursing facility in Greensburg, Pa., on Thursday, March 25, 2021.

Nursing home workers who are not vaccinated could face more frequent testing under a new policy announced by the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

The Health Department said the state’s more than 700 skilled nursing facilities must have at least 80% of staff vaccinated by Oct. 1. Those that fail to meet the target will have to regularly test unvaccinated employees for COVID-19. Nursing homes that do not adhere to the testing requirement will face regulatory action.

Currently, only one in eight Pennsylvania nursing homes are meeting the 80% target, “which is not enough from a public health perspective to prevent future outbreaks of the virus,” the Health Department said in a news release.

Statewide, nearly 60% of nursing home staff are vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 83% percent of residents have gotten the shot.

“As COVID-19 cases rise, we are committed to helping prevent outbreaks by stopping COVID-19 from entering a nursing home in the first place, and one of the best ways we can do this is through vaccinating staff in skilled nursing facilities,” said Keara Klinepeter, a Health Department official.

COVID-19 swept through the state’s long-term care facilities, especially early in the pandemic, killing more than 13,400 residents — nearly half the statewide toll.

Nursing home operators appeared to be split over the new policy.

An industry group, the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, pushed back Thursday on what it called “yet another mandate” from the Wolf administration. The group recently came out against the state’s proposal to require long-term care facilities to boost staffing, and it took the state to court last year over more than $150 million in federal coronavirus funding.

“Instead of proposing solutions to increase vaccine acceptance rates in long-term care, the Department of Health, today, threatened providers and issued a punitive mandate on nursing homes,” said Zach Shamberg, the group’s president and CEO. “Working with providers — not punishing them — will produce better outcomes.”

Another trade group, LeadingAge PA — which has also challenged the Wolf administration over staffing and COVID-19 funding — said in a news release distributed by the state that it supports the new vaccination policy. The national LeadingAge organization has recommended that nursing homes make vaccination a condition of employment.

Also Thursday, the Health Department announced a dashboard that shows COVID-19 vaccination rates by facility.

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