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Vaccine deadline looms for Hawaii’s state workers despite lack of guidance

By Monday, thousands of state workers will need to show proof they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing to comply with an executive order issued by Gov. David Ige on Aug. 5. The governor made clear when he announced the policy that employees could be fired if they don’t comply.

But the details of how the program will work don’t seem to be finalized and the state agency that oversees human resources refused to provide the Honolulu Star-Advertiser with a copy of the guidance that does exist.

“We do have a draft policy that we are working on and finalizing, and certainly we will make that available to the press once we are finished,” Ige told the media Friday morning when asked about the policy details during a news conference.

Ryker Wada, director of Department of Human Resources Development, said later in the day that guidance had been distributed Wednesday to department directors and supervisors providing details of how to enact the governor’s policy. But he wouldn’t provide the Star-­Advertiser with a copy of it.

“The guidance itself is an internal document that is for our department directors, human resources officers and supervisors,” he said. “So it’s not something that we would normally share.”

Wada said that if the Star-Advertiser wanted to see the guidance, the newspaper would need to file an official public records request.

Under state law, government records are open to the public unless they fall within a defined exemption, such as constituting an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy or if subject to a court order to be kept confidential. Government agencies are required to provide readily available documents when requested. But it can take a couple of weeks for the government to respond to an official records request, or in some cases, months.

Asked what exemption under the state’s open records law would allow DHRD to withhold the document, Wada said he wasn’t sure.

“If you guys really want it, you can submit the request,” he said.

Wada did explain some of the requirements, which apply to executive branch state workers outside of the Department of Education, the University of Hawaii and Hawaii Health Systems Corp., which have separate guidelines.

He said employees will need to submit a form by Monday attesting to whether they are fully vaccinated, partially vaccinated or unvaccinated. Employees also will need to provide proof of vaccination.

Wada said the information will be kept confidential.

Any unvaccinated employee will be allowed to opt in for regular testing, as opposed to having to seek an exemption for a medical or religious reason. But the state will commit to cover the costs of testing only for employees who have received such an exemption.

Wada said his office is not providing guidance to employees on how to seek a medical or religious exemption. He said there is no law requiring the state to do so.

He said that by Aug. 23, unvaccinated and partially vaccinated state workers will need to submit another attestation form showing they took a COVID-19 test that has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use. Such employees will need to attest to receiving a negative test each week in order to work. In cases in which testing providers do not issue proof of a negative test result, the employee must sign a statement saying they tested negative, he said.

State officials had been reluctant to mandate vaccines for government workers as case counts remained low and the state’s vaccination rate continued to climb. But the highly contagious delta variant of the virus has sent case counts skyrocketing in the past month.

The state averaged more than 700 new cases a day last week compared to a seven-day daily average of 50 cases just a month ago. In response, Ige implemented increased restrictions, including the vaccine and testing requirements for all government workers.

While major unions for government workers have not opposed the vaccine and testing requirements, they’ve been critical of the rollout. Randy Perreira, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, criticized the Ige administration for the lack of details when the governor announced the policy last week.

Meanwhile, officials with the City and County of Honolulu, Hawaii County and Kauai County, which must also comply with the governor’s executive order, provided the Star-Advertiser with the guidelines they have so far. Some counties are still working out the details.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi has taken a harder line on unvaccinated workers, requiring all employees to be vaccinated unless they are granted a medical or religious exemption.

The city’s seven-page guidance explains that employees will need to fill out a form requesting an exemption. If that request is denied, the employee “will be given up to five calendar days to initiate the COVID-19 vaccination process or be placed on leave without pay until their employment status is determined,” according to the policy.

Unvaccinated employees who don’t submit an exemption request by Monday will be placed on leave without pay and possibly fired.

Employees must be tested at city-designated sites, using city-designated tests “to ensure that we have a centralized way to provide the tests and track compliance,” said Tim Sakahara, a spokesman for the mayor.

Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami has taken a softer approach to Ige’s executive order, emphasizing that any county employee can opt to do the weekly testing if they don’t want to get vaccinated.

“We are working to make this easy and convenient for each and every one of you,” said Kawakami in a video message to county employees. “And I will tell you this, I support whatever decision it is that you make. We stand behind you 100%.”

Sarah Blane, the mayor’s chief of staff, said that detailed guidance on the testing program hasn’t been issued yet, but it will likely come out Monday. “Our focus has been disseminating and collecting our attestation forms to help us determine how many associates will require testing, so we know the best way to deploy tests,” she said by email.

Hawaii County’s policy also allows any unvaccinated employee to opt for testing without seeking a medical or religious exemption.

A spokesman for Maui County did not respond to a request for information on its policy.

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