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Boston’s 18,000 city workers and any hired contractors or volunteers will be required to either receive a COVID-19 vaccine or otherwise submit to weekly coronavirus tests under a new policy to be phased in beginning next month, acting Mayor Kim Janey announced on Thursday.
Public-facing employees who interact with “high priority residents” such as Boston Public Schools students and senior citizens will be required to submit proof of vaccination or otherwise begin regular testing on Sept. 20, Janey said at a City Hall press conference.
The policy will apply to all other public-facing employees starting on Oct. 4, with a date of Oct. 18 for all other workers to comply with the mandate, she said.
“As the CEO of the largest employer in Boston that employs 18,000 people, we have to do all we can to protect ourselves, our families, and the residents we serve,” Janey said.
Additionally, in another move to encourage employees to get vaccinated, the city will hold a weekly lottery, the winner of which will receive one extra week of paid time off, officials said. Workers will need to be vaccinated to be eligible for the contest.
The policy announcement came two weeks after Janey said she was “leaning” toward putting a vaccine mandate in place for public employees and that her administration was drafting regulations.
In Boston, almost 68 percent of residents have received at least one dose of vaccine. The city has seen an average of 119 new cases per day in recent weeks, Janey said.
The vaccine policy will require workers to verify their vaccination status by the end of this month “through a secured, centralized digital portal,” Janey said.
“The portal will be designed to protect the privacy of our employees’ health information,” she said. “If employees do not verify their status as vaccinated, they will be required to enter a new mandatory regular testing protocol, which includes submitting proof of a negative test result weekly.”
Janey said the city will unveil COVID testing facilities across Boston, including at City Hall, to meet demand as needed for the policy to take effect.
“There will be clear timelines regarding when to get tested, how to submit testing results, and when employees would need to refrain from coming into work,” she said.
According to Janey, city leaders tapped labor leaders to inform the policy, which has the blessing of the Boston Teachers Union.
“This policy feels consistent with prior policies around vaccinating against other dangerous viruses and diseases,” Jessica Tang, president of the union, said in a statement. “It is our belief that public health policies like this should be made with input from those impacted by the policy, and we appreciate the diligent work Mayor Janey has done with her administration to consider worker voices in this process, and to do what is best and safest for Boston as a whole.”
Now seeking a full term in office, Janey had also been facing calls to roll out such a policy from some of her fellow mayoral candidates, including John Barros, the city’s former chief of economic development, and city councilors Andrea Campbell and Michelle Wu.
In contrast, City Councilor and mayoral hopeful Annissa Essaibi Geroge told GBH News earlier this week she was willing to explore the idea of a vaccine mandate but would personally like to “avoid a mandate as much as possible.”
“I worry about how we are going to enforce that, how far are we going to go?” she said.
On Thursday, Wu commended the new vaccine policy, but said Janey’s administration must do more.
“I’m glad the Administration has finally answered the call to mandate vaccines for city workers—but with the Delta variant surging, we need more than half-measures,” Wu said in a statement. “City Hall must set out regulations on vaccination for high-risk indoor spaces like gyms, salons, and restaurants to ensure protections for all our communities.”
Campbell, in a statement, quipped that it was about time Janey got the policy off the ground, calling it “the type of decision that should take hours or days — not weeks.”
Barros said simply that the mandate was “overdue.”
“This should have been implemented last month when Acting Mayor Janey required employees to come back to City Hall full time,” he said in a statement.
Last week, Janey faced controversy after invoking slavery-era freedom papers and birtherism when talking about vaccine passports — remarks she later said she regretted.
But she affirmed her opposition to the idea and again reiterated her stance on Thursday through highlighting her concerns that the so-called passports would lock out Black residents — a demographic that has one of the city’s lower vaccination rates — from crucial resources.
As of Aug. 3, only 45.8 percent of Black residents were fully vaccinated, compared to 74.8 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander residents, 60.5 percent of white residents, and 47.9 percent of Latinx residents, according to Boston Public Health Commssion data. Nearly 35 percent of American Indian and Alaskan Native residents were vaccinated.
“To suggest that half of Black residents couldn’t go to a grocery store, I think is insane,” Janey said.
Responding to another question, the acting mayor also vowed not to “politicize the pandemic.”
“I’m going to continue to prioritize people in our city,” she said.
But Campbell alleged Janey was “once again spreading misinformation about the vaccine by saying that proof of vaccination would be required to shop in a grocery store.”
“No one has suggested that for Boston, and this wasn’t part of the policy implemented in New York City,” she said. “Misinformation like this erodes trust in our public health system and will likely prevent people from getting vaccinated.”
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