NY ends COVID testing mandate for unvaccinated state workers. But teachers must wait.

David Robinson
New York State Team

New York quietly lifted its weekly COVID-19 testing mandate for unvaccinated state workers on Tuesday, ending one of the few remaining pandemic restrictions intended to limit the coronavirus’ spread.

And a similar measure requiring weekly COVID-19 testing of unvaccinated teachers and school employees will end June 30, state officials said.

Meanwhile, many health care facilities — including hospitals and nursing homes — are still prohibited from employing unvaccinated workers. That mandate has been in place since it led to a roughly 3% reduction in the health care workforce last fall.

The latest COVID-19 policy shift on state employee testing comes after New York lifted its indoor mask mandates in public spaces and schools earlier this spring, as authorities pushed to curb the virus’ disruptions to daily life.

Robert Akey of Sloatsburg receives a COVID-19 antigen test from Dexton Cummins at Patriot Hills Golf Course in Stony Point on Tuesday, January 4, 2022.

A pool of about 10,700 unvaccinated state employees had weekly COVID-19 testing conducted, according to state numbers released in February. That reflected about 14% of the state workforce impacted by the mandate.

The cost to taxpayers for the mandatory testing has totaled about $12.5 million so far, state records show, but the state had contracted with laboratories to spend up to $60 million on the tests. It remains unclear if additional costs are pending.

Details of NY’s COVID testing mandate for unvaccinated workers

COVID-19 community risk levels by county in New York according to CDC.

Last week, state employees learned via an internal email that the COVID-19 testing mandate for unvaccinated workers would be suspended effective June 7.

The email left open the possibility that officials would later reinstate the mandate, noting it was suspended “until further notice,” according to a copy of the email provided by the Office of Employee Relations.

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State employees who feel they have been exposed to COVID-19 — and those who test positive or are experiencing symptoms of the respiratory disease — should also continue to follow the latest isolation and quarantine guidance from the state Health Department, the email added.

The current isolation period following a positive test result is at least five days, regardless of vaccination status, the guidance shows.

In a statement, Erin McCarthy, a spokesperson for the office, noted state agencies are also still encouraging all employees to continue testing for COVID-19 through at-home tests or at testing locations, citing the wide availability of tests.

The development comes as the latest omicron subvariant wave has receded in recent weeks. The statewide seven-day average COVID-19 case rate, for example, has dropped about 58% since recent highs this spring.

Federal COVID-19 aid funding to states is also being reduced from prior levels, despite lawmakers striking a deal in April to provide an additional $10 billion in pandemic-related funding

That funding change could impact New York, where the bulk of the cost of mandatory testing for unvaccinated workers, as well as many other pandemic-related response actions, have been paid for by federal pandemic relief aid.

NY’s medical worker vaccine mandate

Dr. Radhika Hariharan, an infectious disease doctor at St. John's Riverside Hospital in Yonkers, N.Y. gets a COVID-19 vaccine from Linda Sugrue, R.N. Dec. 15, 2020. Dr. Hariharan was the first of forty staff members to receive the vaccine at the hospital Tuesday.

While officials lift other pandemic mandates, New York’s health officials appear poised to sustain its requirement that medical workers be vaccinated against COVID-19.

That mandate has faced criticism from many Republican leaders as well as some health care providers who asserted the loss of unvaccinated medical workers worsened a long-standing staffing shortage facing some hospitals and nursing homes.

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Meanwhile, Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration’s previous push to mandate medical workers receive a COVID-19 booster dose has been all but abandoned, in favor of encouraging they voluntarily get the added shot.

In February, Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett abruptly changed course on the booster mandate, citing concerns it would trigger a staffing crisis at some health care facilities. At the time, she noted about 25% of the workforce would have missed the deadline to receive the booster shot to avoid losing their jobs.

Currently, the percentage of hospital workers who received a COVID-19 booster shot stands at about 70%, according to the latest state data on Tuesday.

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David Robinson is the state health care reporter for the USA TODAY Network New York. He can be reached atdrobinson@gannett.com and followed on Twitter:@DrobinsonLoHud