Days after saying he has no intention of ordering a vaccination mandate, Gov. Jared Polis on Friday announced that state employees who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 will have to take twice-weekly coronavirus tests and wear masks at the office.
In a statement, Polis called the decision a “middle road” approach that respects the concerns of those on both sides of the vaccination debate. It also aligns with rules for federal employees that President Joe Biden announced Thursday.
“I have heard from state employees who are terrified that their unvaccinated co-workers will give them COVID-19 and want vaccination mandated, and from other state workers who have hesitation towards the vaccine,” Polis said.
The order applies to executive branch employees under the governor’s authority. That means, for instance, it excludes people who work for the judicial branch. A spokesman for the governor said the order covers about 30,000 state workers.
The testing will be free. Employees must submit the test results to state human resources officials. Polis’ office said vaccinated employees will be able to use the myColorado app to verify their vaccination status.
The governor’s office said it may end the testing requirements if the state crosses above a certain threshold for vaccinations or below certain levels of virus transmission. But it said officials are still reviewing the science to determine what those thresholds should be.
“The state of Colorado has a responsibility to lead by example and to model workplace safety policies that reduce community spread and protect our workers and those who interact with them,” Polis said in a statement. “The COVID-19 vaccine is safe and highly effective even against the delta variant, and we encourage all eligible Coloradans including state employees to get vaccinated.”
Friday’s announcement comes on the same day that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new information about the transmissibility of the delta variant, which is estimated to account for 95% of the new infections in the state. One case study from Massachusetts in particular, prompted the CDC to conclude that vaccinated people who get infected with the variant may be able to spread it to others just as readily as unvaccinated people.
That information formed the basis of the CDC’s reversal this week in urging vaccinated people in most places to wear masks in public indoor settings. The CDC also called for universal masking in schools.
Polis’ office has said he is reviewing the new guidance, and the announcement on testing for unvaccinated employees contained no mention of the CDC’s recommendations. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has not yet said whether it endorses the recommendations.
But more local public health departments on Friday echoed the CDC’s concern. San Juan Basin Public Health, which covers La Plata and Archuleta counties, and Tri-County Health Department, which covers Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, both issued statements backing the CDC guidance. Jefferson County Public Health did so the day before.
“One thing that we have learned over and over again during the pandemic is to expect the unexpected,” Dr. John Douglas, Tri-County’s executive director, said in a statement. “Although we think a resumption of wearing masks in schools and public indoor settings can be a useful measure to stem increases in transmission, it’s quite clear that getting vaccinated as soon as possible is the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”