U.S. says it could spend $22 mln a month testing unvaccinated federal employees


WASHINGTON, Feb 15 (Reuters) - The U.S. government said it faces "significant harm" if an a appeals court fails to reverse an injunction barring enforcement of President Joe Biden's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for government workers, and that testing unvaccinated employees could cost up to $22 million a month.

White House Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director Jason Miller disclosed in an declaration cited late on Monday by the Justice Department that the government would be hurt on several fronts if it cannot enforce the vaccine requirements.

"While most federal civilian employees are fully vaccinated, hundreds of thousands of them are not vaccinated," Miller said in the Jan. 28 declaration.

The government hires about 20,000 workers monthly and currently cannot require them to be vaccinated, he added.

On Jan. 21, a U.S. judge in Texas ruled Biden could not require federal employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and blocked the U.S. government from disciplining employees failing to comply.

In September, Biden had issued an order requiring about 3.5 million workers to get vaccinated by Nov. 22 barring a religious or medical accommodation - or else face discipline or firing.

Miller's declaration said as of Jan. 21, roughly 2% of the federal civilian workforce "had neither affirmed they were fully vaccinated nor submitted a request for or received an exception."

U.S. COVID-19 workplace safety protocols require unvaccinated federal employees to submit to regular testing. Weekly testing "could cost taxpayers on the order of $11 million to $22 million each month, or $33 million to $65 million each quarter," Miller wrote.

Tens of thousands of unvaccinated federal employees do not have pending or approved requests for exception and tens of thousands of exception requests are pending, Miller wrote.

Last week, a U.S. appeals court declined to block the vaccine ruling. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear the case on March 8.

Miller said the ruling is forcing government agencies to revise "reentry and post-reentry plans and schedules" to include "setting up expanded COVID-19 testing programs at agencies." He added if the injunction remains in place "it will imperil the federal government's ability to protect the health and safety of the federal workforce."

The Justice Department cited then-President Ronald Reagan's 1986 executive order requiring federal employees abstain from using illegal drugs, both on and off duty, and argued the president has "broad power to regulate the federal civil service."

Reporting by David Shepardson Editing by Bill Berkrot

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