Syringes filled with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine sit ready to use to vaccinate seniors 75 and over at a clinic at St. Bernard Church in Vernon Thursday, Jan. 28. The one-day clinic was set up by Priority Urgent Care of Ellington in partnership with the town of Vernon in an effort to reach out to the community to make it easier for seniors to get the vaccine. 100 doses of the vaccine were given. Cloe Poisson / CTMirror.org
Syringes filled with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine sit ready to use to vaccinate seniors 75 and over at a clinic at St. Bernard Church in Vernon Thursday, Jan. 28. Cloe Poisson / CTMirror.org

As the deadline approaches for state workers to get vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID tests, the Lamont administration has reached an agreement with its largest state employee union to pay for four tests for those who aren’t vaccinated.

The agreement comes after state officials said the state will stop paying for surveillance COVID testing and that those who choose not to get vaccinated will either have to get their insurance to cover testing costs or pay for each test out-of-pocket. A COVID test can cost more than $100, depending on where it is collected.

At a press conference on Thursday, Chief Operating Officer Josh Geballe said the administration was in discussions with the state unions.

“That’s one of the items that we’re negotiating, about whether we will cover any of that testing and, if so, for how long,” Geballe said. “But generally speaking, we do not anticipate repetitive COVID screening being covered, and that may mean out-of-pocket costs for employees whose employers have a vaccine mandate.”

Even as Geballe was discussing testing, representatives of the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition were ironing out a partial agreement with state officials to have the state pay for four COVID tests. The two sides are still negotiating over whether the state would cover more testing than that, and union officials said they could go to arbitration.

In a bulletin to its members Thursday, SEBAC officials said there are still outstanding issues “including whether outside of mandatory testing facilities, testing should be paid for by the State and on State time, the exact nature of the consequence for not complying with the executive order, and whether there should be a cash incentive associated with being vaccinated.”

All state employees must submit their vaccine status to the state Department of Public Health by Monday. If an employee is not vaccinated, they will be required to get tested for COVID-19 weekly.

State officials won’t know how many of the roughly 46,000 state employees covered by SEBAC are vaccinated until Monday’s deadline. Geballe said that state officials plan to release vaccine data to the public sometime next week.

The testing option is not available for employees in long-term care facilities or other health care settings who must provide proof of vaccination or face disciplinary action, including dismissal.

The agreement does not cover school personnel across the state, who are also required to get vaccinated. It is not clear whether teachers, bus drivers or administrators who aren’t vaccinated can still get free COVID testing.

“We’ve been told by the Department of Public Health that they can still go to sites where testing has been available and the state will cover it,” said Nancy Andrews, Communications Director for the Connecticut Education Association.

“About 90% of teachers were already vaccinated according to a survey we did earlier this year, and we believe those numbers will be even higher now,” Andrews said.

For most of the pandemic, the state has covered the cost of all COVID testing, believing it is important to test to both see where the virus is spreading and attempt to control it. If someone is symptomatic and gets a test, the state or private insurance will still cover those costs.

Some communities are rushing to offer testing options for their employees and residents.

In Vernon, town officials have made a deal with Sema4, its lab partner in the spring of 2020, to provide COVID testing on Sundays and Tuesdays for anyone in the greater Vernon area.

The drive-through testing site will be at Rockville High School from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays for any resident. A second drive through will take place on Tuesdays for employees, particularly school employees, who need negative test results to comply with mandates if they are not vaccinated.

“Because of these new mandatory testing requirements, we wanted to ensure testing was accessible, convenient and affordable for those who need it,” Vernon Mayor Dan Champagne said. “Sunday testing is open to Vernon residents and people from other communities.”

Private insurance will be billed for those who have coverage, but there will be no out of pocket costs. People who do not have health insurance will not be charged.

Vernon Town Administrator and Director of Emergency and Risk Management Michael Purcaro said the decision to offer COVID testing again comes after the state made it clear that it will no longer pay for surveillance testing.

“Early in the pandemic, we saw a need for community-based testing and established multiple testing sites in Vernon,” Purcaro said. “This new testing initiative is the next natural step, since testing is now mandatory for some in our community.”

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Dave does in-depth investigative reporting for CT Mirror. His work focuses on government accountability including financial oversight, abuse of power, corruption, safety monitoring, and compliance with law. Before joining CT Mirror Altimari spent 23 years at the Hartford Courant breaking some of the state’s biggest, most impactful investigative stories.