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Pa. to require health, congregate workers to get the coronavirus vaccine or be tested weekly

The move affects about 25,000 workers. New hires can't choose to be tested and must be vaccinated.

Vaccine posters are seen behind Gov. Tom Wolf while he tours a Philadelphia clinic on Friday.
Vaccine posters are seen behind Gov. Tom Wolf while he tours a Philadelphia clinic on Friday.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

State employees in Pennsylvania health-care and congregate-care facilities will be required to be vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Tuesday, setting the first vaccine mandate for the commonwealth.

The announcement affects about 25,000 workers who must be vaccinated by Sept. 7 or undergo weekly testing. Any new hires after that date will be required to be vaccinated as a condition of employment.

“States around us are doing all kinds of things like this,” Wolf said at a news briefing, “and I think it’s the right thing for us to do, especially for those who depend on the commonwealth and the commonwealth employees to keep them safe.”

The mandate is similar to one announced by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy last week but applies only to commonwealth employees in state-run facilities, including state hospitals, state homes for people with intellectual disabilities, veterans homes, community health centers, and state correctional institutions.

Wolf touted the state’s national standings — it was ranked ninth in partial vaccinations as of Tuesday, according to the New York Times — but indicated he was still worried about the spread of the the highly transmissible delta variant.

The variant’s rise, particularly in the country’s under-vaccinated areas, has led folks throughout the region to implement a bevy of new tactics in recent weeks in an attempt boost vaccination rates. Last week, Pennsylvania said it sent texts to more than 250,000 residents who skipped their second shots between December and May. In New Jersey, Murphy called out anti-vaccine demonstrators directly and announced the new mandates for certain health workers. Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Delaware have also mandated masks in all schools, and a growing number restaurants and indoor venues have issued their own proof-of-vaccination requirements.

» READ MORE: ‘Enough is enough’: Gov. Murphy’s outburst was the latest sign of rising anger over pandemic divide

Wolf held off on issuing any mandates of his own, saying he felt the state was faring well enough without them. While the state still has so far avoided the hospital surges and widespread outbreaks seen in less-vaccinated regions, the governor’s tune changed Tuesday.

“As well as we’re doing, we’re not doing good enough,” Wolf said in Harrisburg. “This is not where we want to be ... as good as it is.”

In a separate statement, Wolf hinted support for private employers requiring vaccine mandates, saying that the commonwealth, a major employer, must “stand up and provide an example for other businesses to follow.”

In his spoken remarks, he reiterated, however, that he did not plan to issue any requirements for the private sector, such as New York City’s mandate that patrons show proof of vaccinations at indoor restaurants and gyms. He added: “I think private employers will do what they want to do.”

But guest speaker Michael Ripchinski, chief clinical officer of Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, encouraged companies to follow in the lead of a growing number of hospitals.

“Those employers of any size, large and small, play an essential role in making sure we can increase those vaccination rates and put the pandemic behind us,” Ripchinksi said. “As the healthcare community has led the way in requiring vaccines for our employees, we encourage all the employers to join the commonwealth in adopting policies to encourage vaccinations.”

» READ MORE: Pa., N.J., and Del. leaders weigh vaccine-verification options, but largely hold off on mandates

Wolf stopped short of mandating vaccination for all 72,000 state employees, instead targeting high-risk health-care and congregate settings.

All state employees who are vaccinated by Oct. 1, however, will be eligible for an extra 7.5 or 8 hours of paid time off as an incentive.

”In Pennsylvania, we’re trying to make sure we keep everyone safe by getting the vaccine. It’s the right thing to do,” the governor said. “If you live in a place, in a community, with anybody who is vulnerable, you’re a shield only if you get vaccinated.”

“If you don’t choose to get vaccinated, you’re not serving as a shield,” he added, “and you’re putting the people around you — your neighbors, your family members, your friends, your community — at risk.”