In August, Gov. John Bel Edwards told state workers that once a coronavirus vaccine received full approval, they would likely face a choice: get vaccinated or undergo regular testing.
“We need to have safe workplaces,” Edwards said, suggesting testing requirements for unvaccinated workers to ensure they weren’t spreading the deadly disease.
But more than a month later, no such testing regimen has been implemented, even after the U.S. Food & Drug Administration granted full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Aug. 23.
Ultimately, the endeavor proved too difficult, Edwards said.
“We continue to make the case for people to be vaccinated, because it’s the right thing to do,” the governor said at a press conference last week. “But standing up the testing program that would be required is really challenging.”
Hurricane Ida is partly to blame.
The catastrophic storm made landfall shortly after the FDA granted the vaccine full approval, and officials have had little time in its aftermath to focus on the logistical hurdles of setting up a testing program for state workers.
A nationwide shortage in rapid COVID tests is also to blame, the governor said. Though Louisiana’s Department of Health has around 150,000 rapid tests in stock, much of those are being used to support testing in K-12 schools and areas impacted by Ida.
However, that could soon change. The White House recently announced that it was investing $2 billion to ramp up production of certain at-home rapid tests, which federal officials say will quadruple their availability by the end of the year.
But even if the supplies were sufficient, it's unclear how Louisiana would coordinate making those tests available to all of its workers. The state employs more than 40,000 people in offices in all 64 parishes. The Health Department said it isn't feasible to set up testing sites at every state office.
“Implementing this kind of vaccination and testing policy for our executive branch employees is challenging, as there are many moving parts, and we have many executive branch employees,” the governor’s spokesperson, Christina Stephens, wrote Thursday in a statement.
It's unclear how many state employees remain unvaccinated, but Edwards hoped to use the policy to nudge workers to roll up their sleeves.
“We think we can say, ‘You’re a state employee. You’re not vaccinated. You got to go get a test. And if you don’t, you’re going to be fired.’ We can do that,” Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said in August.
Some states are requiring employees get the vaccine and do not offer a testing alternative for the unvaccinated, an option that Edwards doesn’t intend to implement in Louisiana right now, Stephens said.
“Moving forward, we are going to continue to evaluate our testing stock and other options for testing state workers who are not yet vaccinated,” Stephens said.
But several questions remain, including how often testing would be required, when it would be offered and how the state would pay for it.
State law prohibits a public employer from requiring an employee to pay for a medical or drug test as a condition of employment, so taxpayers will have to pick up the tab.