Nation/World

Nearly 40% of California state workers are unvaccinated against COVID despite Newsom order

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The COVID-19 vaccination rate is lower among California state workers than among the state’s general population, according to data from the state Human Resources Department.

Fewer than two-thirds of state workers — about 62% — were vaccinated as of Oct. 7, according to preliminary figures provided by department spokeswoman Camille Travis. That compares to a rate of about 72% among all Californians, according to state data.

The employee data is incomplete, accounting for about 213,000 of the state’s 238,000 employees, Travis said. But the relatively low rate identified so far suggests many workers weren’t moved by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s July orders to workers to get vaccinated or submit to regular testing.

Several of the largest state departments shared vaccination rates for their staff: 52% of California Highway Patrol employees, 60% of Department of Motor Vehicles employees and 60% of prison employees have received the shots. Caltrans reports a higher rate, with 70% of its employees vaccinated against COVID-19.

The Newsom administration’s shot-or-test rules for state workers are less stringent than those the governor imposed on health care workers, who must get vaccinated unless claiming a religious or medical exemption.

Newsom’s administration also is defending state prison employees’ ability to choose whether they get vaccinated. The Democrat’s administration is appealing a ruling from federal judge who ordered the state to ensure that all prison employees are vaccinated against the virus.

Still, Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly expressed frustration with the pace of vaccination in a Sept. 28 letter to state employees he said was occasioned by the preventable COVID-19 death of a worker who left behind a wife and two children.

“We haven’t done enough,” Ghaly said in the letter. “Despite our work to avoid it, we have allowed an invaluable, life-saving health intervention (to) become more complicated, more polarizing, more confusing than anything seen before in modern medicine.”

He urged employees to get vaccinated for their families, noting the vaccines are safe and effective and have helped keep the delta variant of the virus at bay.

“For whatever reason that has held you out from getting vaccinated, I implore you to reconsider,” he said in the letter.

Vaccinated state employees could soon come into closer contact with their unvaccinated peers as state offices reopen in the weeks ahead. Large numbers of unvaccinated employees could strain some offices, since supervisors are responsible for monitoring and processing employee coronavirus tests.

The Human Resources Department has been collecting vaccination data since mid-August and coordinating efforts to set up testing programs for every one of the 166 departments, agencies, boards, commissions and other offices that make up the state government.

CalHR Director Eraina Ortega called the effort “monumental.”

“I don’t think we should underestimate the impact of having to identify the staff, train them, set up the program, work with (the Department of Public Health) to set up the supplies, all these elements,” Ortega said. “State departments normally do a lot of complex work, but it’s in their subject area. We’ve asked them to take on something that’s out of their usual expertise and to be trained and do it.”

The state launched pilot testing programs in the central offices of five state departments, and has expanded testing to 13 departments and 40 sites, Ortega said.

The offices are using a combination of antigen and PCR testing, working through a national shortage of supplies for the antigen tests, which are less uncomfortable then the deep nasal swabs of the PCR tests. Sixty departments with 20 or fewer employees are using over-the-counter tests, said Travis, the CalHR spokeswoman.

The Public Health Department contracts with Color Genomics, a Bay Area firm, for testing supplies and services for most departments.

Departments haven’t explicitly tied reopening plans to their testing programs, but they are expected to provide tests for employees who don’t disclose their vaccination status.

Ortega said the Human Resources Department will eventually be responsible for ensuring to the Governor’s Office that unvaccinated employees across state government are being tested according to Newsom’s orders.

As of last week, the Human Resources Department had received data from 118 of the 166 state government offices, said Travis.

Several large state departments had planned to start requiring all employees to begin reappearing in offices at least one or two days a week as soon as Sept. 1, but many of those plans have been delayed.

Departments including the State Treasurer’s Office, the Franchise Tax Board and the Department of Health Care Services attributed delays to testing supply shortages and the delta variant.

The Treasurer’s Office is now scheduled to start calling employees into the office starting Oct. 22, while the Franchise Tax Board, the state’s ninth-largest department, plans to start cycling all employees into offices Nov. 1.

The true vaccination rate could be higher than the reported 62% figure, even among the 213,000 employees included in the Human Resources Department’s data.

Paulina Vasquez, a California State Lottery district sales representative and SEIU Local 1000 union steward, said some employees — including her — are vaccinated but haven’t shown proof to the state.

Vasquez said that while the lottery hasn’t offered employees any testing yet, she wants to be tested regularly even though she’s vaccinated. She said her job requires her to visit about a dozen grocery or liquor stores each day, and she doesn’t want to spread the virus with a breakthrough infection.

“I would hate to contract it, be asymptomatic and then spread it,” she said. “That’s my biggest fear. I would feel terrible if I got someone’s parent or grandparent sick who works in one of these stores.”

Vasquez said some other employees are taking the same approach, and still others just prefer not to share any medical information with their employer, including their vaccination status.

Lottery spokeswoman Carolyn Becker confirmed the Lottery has not yet started a testing program. “Lottery will begin implementing its COVID-19 testing program — we hope soon — once we have received all of the necessary testing supplies,” Becker said in an email. “We do have most of them and are working with CDPH to secure the rest.”

Becker said 77% of Lottery employees have submitted proof of vaccination.

Ortega said departments are prioritizing tests for unvaccinated employees, but are also offering them to vaccinated workers when possible.

More stringent vaccination rules could be coming to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the state’s largest department with about 66,000 employees and a 60% vaccination rate.

U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar in Oakland issued an order Sept. 27 directing CDCR to vaccinate all state prison employees, eliminating the testing alternative except in cases of religious or medical exemptions.

Similar orders have proven effective at improving vaccination rates among private-sector health care workers. Vaccination rates surged among Sacramento-area hospital employees after the Newsom administration’s stringent order of Aug. 5, clearing 90%.

Judge Tigar issued his order over objections from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which said it would continue to fight stricter rules. This week, the Newsom administration filed a notice that it plans to appeal Tigar’s order.

Several state unions have formally objected even to Newsom’s shot-or-test rules.

SEIU Local 1000, Cal Fire Local 2881 and the International Union of Operating Engineers each filed formal complaints targeting the administration’s decision to impose the rules immediately, rather than giving unions the standard 30 to 60 days’ notice to meet and confer over impacts of workplace changes.

The administration recently reached a settlement agreement with Local 1000, the largest of the state employee unions, that allows employees to refuse to share their vaccination status but still requires testing for those who choose not to say whether they’re vaccinated.

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