No Vaccine Mandates Yet For Town Workers

By: Tim Wood

A Barnstable County public health nurse prepares a dose of the Moderna vaccine during a drive-through clinic in Orleans. FILE PHOTO

Chatham Health Board Seeks More Info On Rates

Local towns have not implemented COVID-19 vaccinations mandates for town employees, but the Chatham Board of Health has asked staff to research the issue and gather more information about vaccination rates among municipal workers.

Barnstable County may implement a vaccination mandate for its employees this week. County commissioners were slated to vote on a mandate Wednesday.

“I think it's a good policy,” said commission chair Ronald Bergstrom of Chatham. “The time has come for us to get out from under these restrictions, and it's not going to happen until we get closer to universal vaccinations.”

Meeting on Oct. 4, the Chatham Board of Health asked whether there is any reason town officials haven’t issued a vaccine mandate for town employees.

“None that I’m aware of,” Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson replied. While he didn’t have firm numbers, Duncanson said that he believes the vaccination rate is very high among employees of the fire department. In other departments, from what he’s heard anecdotally, “the vaccination rate is fairly high. It’s not 100 percent,” he said.

Health Board Chairman John Beckley said it’s possible to make a case for requiring vaccines for town employees, “at least those in the health care field,” specifically the paramedics and EMTs in the fire department.

Duncanson said any move to require COVID shots among town employees would need to be done with care. Based on other towns that have done so, “it turns into a union issue, it turns into a bargaining issue,” he said. In one Cape town that issued such a mandate to its employees, the policy was rolled out badly and was not well received, Duncanson said.

As of last month, the White House issued a vaccine mandate for all health care facilities that receive federal funds, including Medicare and Medicaid, encompassing hospitals and nursing homes.

Health board member Carol Boyce said that mandate should therefore include town EMTs.

“Wouldn’t they be considered healthcare providers and have to follow the federal mandate?” she asked. Duncanson said he doesn’t know for certain.

“On the face of it, it would make sense,” he said.

“I personally would not want to be taken to the hospital by an EMT who was not vaccinated,” board member Richard Edwards said.

“I would concur with that,” Beckley said.

The town should be able to require its workers to be inoculated if commercial airlines can do the same, board member Ron Broman said.

“They either have to get shots, or they’re off,” he said.

Health board member Noble Hansen called a vaccine mandate for town employees “a big step,” and said it warrants careful consideration. He said he’s not sure the mandate is critically needed, since COVID-19 case counts are generally going down. Such a move might make sense “if it was spiking up and there was some triggering event,” Hansen said.

Beckley asked Duncanson to research what other government groups have issued vaccine mandates, and to provide better information on the vaccination levels of Chatham town workers.

The town of Harwich has issued no vaccine mandate for its employees, and there are no immediate plans to do so.

“At this point the town has not yet had the discussion,” Health Director Kathleen O’Neill said.

Orleans Board of Health Chairman Joe Hartung said that the board has not had any discussion about a possible vaccine mandate for town employees.

At the state level, employees of the executive department are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19, as are members of the state police. The union representing state troopers opposes that mandate and sought an injunction to block or delay the requirement, but a Suffolk County judge rejected that request on Sept. 23.

Citing that ruling, Bergstrom said a mandate is all about protecting county employees and the public. Since raising the issue, there has been little push-back from the public or county workers, he said, but commissioners want to be cautious and asked the administration and their attorneys to provide a recommendation on Wednesday. He noted that contract talks are currently underway with county unions.

“I don't know what they will tell us,” he said, adding that although he did not have exact numbers, vaccination rates among county workers are “pretty high.”

Tim Wood, William Galvin and Ryan Bray contributed to this report.