NC government workers take up inflated share of available tests

State cabinet-level workers who are not fully vaccinated are being tested at greater rates at a time when testing supplies are limited.

Posted Updated
Cooper discusses efforts to improve testing, vaccination rates across state
Bryan Anderson
, WRAL statehouse reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — Government employees across North Carolina are taking an outsize share of Covid-19 tests at a time when supplies are limited and long lines are forming outside testing centers.

A mandate Gov. Roy Cooper issued last year calls for state employees to be tested weekly if they aren’t fully vaccinated. This has prompted more than 10,000 state cabinet-level workers to take up a disproportionate share of resources, according to data from the North Carolina Office of State Human Resources.

In many instances, state employees are paid to leave the office to get tested during their work hours under HR policies, causing scheduling disruptions. County and municipal governments implementing their own mandates are also exhausting public health supplies.

The 10,300 state workers tested weekly under Cooper’s directive represent less than 0.01% of North Carolina’s nearly 10.5 million residents. Even so, they took 1.4% of the more than 732,000 tests reported between Jan. 9 and Jan. 15, 1.7% of the 620,000 tests between Jan. 2 and Jan. 8 and 2.2% of the 467,000 tests reported the week after Christmas.

The testing rate accounted for a 14-, 17- and 22-fold overrepresentation over the three weeks. The numbers would be smaller if employees chose to comply with Cooper’s directive by receiving vaccinations.

Free testing remains available across the state and capacity is expected to improve in the coming weeks as the federal government expands rapid testing supplies. But accessibility remains a major issue.

Some Raleigh-area residents spent an hour and a half this month waiting in their cars outside a mass testing site at PNC Arena. A long line outside one Charlotte clinic backed up to a residential area this month, frustrating nearby residents who were trying to leave their driveways and avoid run-ins with potentially infectious drivers.

Even those not traveling for tests have been affected. North Carolinians seeking free at-home Covid tests through the state health department website, for instance, have sometimes been met with messages to check back the following day for replenished supplies. Many of those who secured a test encountered shipping or processing delays that prevented them from getting quick results.

North Carolina health officials note the share of state workers being tested is still small compared to the overall state population. The state health department said it is working to ramp up testing.

“NCDHHS continues to work to address staffing shortages as well as distribute and secure additional tests from manufacturers to help with these strains,” the department said in a statement.

Local, county employees also tested

Municipal and county workers with vaccination or testing requirements are also highly represented, though some local governments are rethinking their programs after the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that businesses with at least 100 workers wouldn’t have to comply with a vaccine-or-test rule imposed by President Joe Biden’s administration.

The city of Charlotte planned to roll out a testing requirement for unvaccinated workers this month but decided not to carry it out after the court’s ruling. Cory Burkarth, a city spokesman, shared data showing 1,862 of the 7,720 city employees, or 24%, were unvaccinated, as of Dec. 1. Police and fire department personnel represent most of those unvaccinated workers.

In Wake County, where testing is required, 500 of the 4,500 county employees are tested each week and get paid for their testing, meaning they receive compensation for all work hours even when they are not performing their traditional job functions. Raleigh city workers also need to be tested, but they must do so on their own time and without pay.

Julia Milstead, a Raleigh city spokeswoman, said about 500 of the roughly 5,725 full-time and part-time employees get tested weekly. Milstead said 84% of city employees are vaccinated.

Cooper maintains vaccination push

At the state level, transportation and prison workers account for the largest share of state cabinet-level employees who must undergo weekly testing.

The state transportation department said it tested 2,120 of its workers about a week ago but does not track the place where they get tested or the type of test taken. Under state human resources department policy, employees are paid to get tested since it is considered part of their job.

According to human resources policy, workers covered by Cooper’s directive can enter any time spent on taking their mandatory weekly tests as “Time Worked.” The state advises those employees to use on-site testing when possible. If they go outside the office for testing, they “are expected to take no more than a maximum of two hours per week per test.”

Cooper, North Carolina’s Democratic governor, urged state workers and others in attendance at a transportation summit on Wednesday to get all their Covid-19 shots.

"I am not going to miss this opportunity to remind everyone that the way to move us past this pandemic is vaccines and boosters,” Cooper said. “The science is irrefutable. Do all that you can to make sure your family, friends and employees are protected."

Cooper spokesman Jordan Monaghan did not say whether the Supreme Court’s recent ruling would prompt the governor to revise his mandate or halt plans to expand the definition of fully vaccinated to refer to those who have gotten a booster shot.

“Vaccinations are our way out of this pandemic and we've seen that employer policies that require vaccination or testing increase vaccinations and make workplaces safer,” Monaghan said in a statement. “The governor will continue to encourage employers who enact policies that result in more vaccinations.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling still allows the Biden administration to advance a vaccine mandate for most U.S. health care workers. The state Department of Health and Human Services is the second largest agency subject to Cooper’s directive and has 90% of its workers fully vaccinated.


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