Tom Wolf – budget press conference

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at an event at the Capitol to discuss increases in public school funding after signing budget legislation Wednesday, June 30, 2021, in Harrisburg. Wolf was joined by Democratic lawmakers, school board officials and others.

About 25,000 state employees who work in health care and congregate care settings including state hospitals, state centers and state prisons – will be required to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Tuesday.

In addition, all new state employees in those facilities hired on or after Sept. 7 will need to be vaccinated in order to get hired, and all new state employees will need to be vaccinated before they are hired beginning on Oct. 1, Wolf said.

Existing state employees won’t be required to get vaccinated, Wolf said, but those who have been vaccinated will be granted an extra day off.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have learned that the COVID-19 virus thrives in settings where people live in close proximity, such as congregate care,” Wolf said. “These individuals are often our most vulnerable Pennsylvanians who are unable to leave these facilities and rely on the direct care of the staff. We want our residents and their loved ones to have peace of mind that we are doing everything we can to keep them safe.”

Wolf reiterated that he does not plan to enact a statewide mask mandate. He said state offices, including liquor stores and DMV offices, will have signs encouraging people to wear masks, but that he doesn’t expect any particular effort to enforce mask-wearing in those offices.

Rather, he said he thinks the state should focus on slowing the spread of COVID by getting as many people vaccinated as possible.

There are 847 individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 in Pennsylvania. Of that number, 204 patients are in the intensive care unit with COVID-19.

Department of Health data indicates there were 769 ICU beds available – about 22% of the total number of ICU beds in the state. For comparison, officials in Arkansas announced Monday that there were only eight ICU beds available in that state.

“We’re not in the hot spot” of COVID outbreaks, Wolf said.

“This is not a reason to be complacent.”

Wolf said that vaccination provides an opportunity for people to form a “community shield” to slow the spread of COVID-19 and protect vulnerable people from being exposed to the virus.

Wolf was joined at the announcement by Lancaster General Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Ripchinski, who noted that the push to vaccinate more people is accelerating days ahead of when schools reopen and students – many too young to get vaccinated – will be returning to in-person classes.

“Vaccines are the most valuable tools we have to stop the epidemic,” Ripchinski said.

Wolf added that his administration is considering whether to use a portion of $372 million in American Rescue Plan funding to provide $100 payments to people who get vaccinated.

President Joe Biden in late July called on states to offer the financial incentive for vaccination, saying, “We all benefit if we can get more people vaccinated.”

Wolf said his staff had calculated that it could cost $80 million to offer the incentive – which would mean that the program would have coaxed 800,000 people to get vaccinated.

Eight million Pennsylvania adults have gotten at least one dose of a vaccine, and almost 6.5 million adults are fully vaccinated in the state, according to CDC data.

Sixty-four percent of adults in Pennsylvania are fully vaccinated while just under 80 percent of adults have gotten at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, CDC data shows. Eighty-four percent of adults over the age of 65 are fully vaccinated, and 99% of senior citizens have gotten at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, according to CDC data.

Wolf said no decision has been made about the incentives and that his administration has been in discussions with Democratic lawmakers about how to spend the money.

Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for House Republicans, said Republican lawmakers earlier this month had urged Wolf to use the bulk of that $372 million for grants to restaurants and other small businesses. Their proposal would have included using $20 million for a Vaccine Awareness Fund to pay for a campaign to stress the importance of vaccination.

“Unfortunately for taxpayers, the governor admitted this afternoon that he is only making the decisions about how to use that money in a partisan vacuum with the Democratic caucuses,” Gottesman said.

“The fact remains that small businesses and restaurants are still hurting and this administration needs to do more to create confidence in the vaccine.”

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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