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NJ spent at least $9M testing its unvaccinated workforce as a quarter remain without shots

New Jersey has spent at least $9.5 million testing state workers for COVID-19 since Gov. Phil Murphy mandated weekly swabs for unvaccinated public employees returning to the office last fall, according to records obtained by Gothamist.

The governor’s vax-or-test rule applied to state employees as they resumed in-person duties beginning October 18th. Gothamist obtained a ledger of payments the state made to its primary testing provider, Vault Health, through a public records request to understand how many taxpayer dollars have gone toward testing public workers, about 26% of whom are unvaccinated.

Gothamist also obtained a breakdown of vaccination rates for the state’s 77,000 employees, which show most departments and agencies have fully inoculated more than 70% of their staff, according to the governor’s office. The Department of Corrections and NJ Transit have the lowest rates at 41% and 61% respectively. The Turnpike Authority and State Police also ranked toward the bottom with only 64% and 65%, respectively, taking all their recommended shots.

Records show departments and agencies spent $9.5 million on testing-related costs from mid-October through February. Overall, New Jersey has spent about $154 per employee on testing, and the costs per capita for each office correlate with its vaccination rate, as one might expect. More shots equal less spending on testing per person. About 20,000 state workers remain unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.

“At a certain point, you have to start to weigh out, what is the economic cost of allowing people to continue to be unvaccinated?” said Stephanie Silvera, an epidemiologist and public health professor at Montclair State University.

The Department of Law and Public Safety, which has vaccinated 84% of its staff, spent the most on testing, about $1.9 million. Law and Public Safety includes State Police, which reports their vaccination rate separately at 65%. The Department of Health spent the second-highest amount, $1.8 million, though a spokesperson said some of those costs include community testing in hot spot areas.

The overall price tag for testing state employees, however, is likely much higher because some testing costs have yet to be billed and one agency used another vendor. The State Department said they have three purchase orders for testing costs worth about $59,800 that have not been invoiced yet. State health care facilities and prisons also had an earlier deadline, September 7th, to prove they were vaccinated or submit to testing

The total payments also don’t include testing costs from the Department of Corrections, which has been testing all its employees — regardless of vaccination status — weekly through another provider, Rutgers University Correctional Healthcare. Corrections has the lowest vaccination rate among all departments with only 41% of its 8,100-person workforce being fully vaccinated. A department spokesperson said the department has spent $68.7 million testing its staff, contractors and more than 10,000 inmates since early days of the pandemic in May 2020, but did not provide a breakdown by group.

“We live in a state that has high taxes and right now when people say, ‘Well, not being vaccinated is my choice.’ Right, but we are paying for that choice through our taxes,” Silvera said.

In terms of the highest coverage, the New Jersey Infrastructure Bank, State Ethics Commission and South Jersey Transportation Planning Organization all had 100% vaccination rates. That was rivaled by the governor’s office and its 96% coverage. Murphy’s executive office has spent about $18,000 or $120 per person to test his staff since the mandates took effect. The New Jersey Economic Development Authority and the Department of Banking and Insurance also boast a high vaccination rate of 91%.

“It’s quite telling that people who are working in that banking and insurance sector recognize the value of being vaccinated in terms of the economy and how do we keep the economy up and running and flourishing,” Silvera said.

Departments with lower vaccination rates are spending more on testing per capita in general, but costs could also vary due to how many employees are on leave, sick with COVID-19 or not regularly going into the office. Officials with the Treasury Department said unvaccinated employees are required to be tested once, any week they report to the office. But if they come back positive, they’re then exempt from testing for 90 days, which follows CDC protocol.

The Department of Homeland Security said employees on leave for a full week or who have recently tested positive are also exempt from weekly testing.

The Judiciary, which was not subject to Murphy’s vaccination or test rule, as a separate branch of government, has an 85% vaccination rate, a spokeswoman said. The Judiciary has its own testing requirement for unvaccinated workers, but they are required to pay for the test themselves. The state legislature, meanwhile, has billed about $2,400 in testing costs, records show.

Murphy is starting to mandate vaccines in some areas. Last month he eliminated the testing option for all workers in health care or high-risk settings. That means the state’s corrections staff face a looming deadline to get their first dose by February 16th and be up-to-date on their vaccinations by March 30th. Workers who don’t comply could face termination. Murphy’s order is being challenged in court by the police union.

Spokespeople for most New Jersey departments told Gothamist they tested unvaccinated workers once a week, but others test more frequently. The Department of Labor tests unvaccinated employees twice a week. At state-run veterans homes, where employees are now required to take the vaccines, fully inoculated staff are tested twice a week and partially vaccinated staff or those with a religious or medical exemption, are tested three times a week.

Kate Brickman, a Vault spokeswomen, said New Jersey opted to do PCR saliva tests, but each department and agency decided whether the company shipped kits to employees at home, at work or asked Vault to set up onsite testing at or near the office. Brickman said Vault bills $111 per test, which includes overnight shipping, lab processing, testing tubes and materials and a dashboard to track compliance. This fee also covers staffing at testing events and Vault supervisors overseeing employee at-home testing, via Zoom.

Brickman said they processed tests through IBX, which was formerly known as RUCDR Infinite Biologics, the Rutgers University lab made famous for developing the first at-home saliva test kit authorized by the FDA in May 2020.

Vault Health, which began as a New York City startup, is now headquartered in Miami and services colleges, universities and corporations like JetBlue, UPS and the NBA.

The governor’s office said most agencies and departments have opted to test with Vault but can procure their own vendor. Vault was hired by the state through a waiver issued by the Department of Health, Murphy spokeswoman Alex Altman said.

This story has been updated with additional details about the Judiciary department’s vaccine-or-test policy.

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