Coronavirus

Judge denies Massachusetts state police union’s attempt to block COVID-19 vaccine mandate

"Suspending the deadline for Union members to obtain full vaccination would be against the public interest which the defendants are charged with protecting."

A class of Massachusetts state troopers marching out of Gillette Stadium last year. Jonathan Wiggs / The Boston Globe

A local judge has shot down the Massachusetts state police union’s attempt to block Gov. Charlie Baker’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate from taking effect next month.

In a nine-page ruling released late Thursday, Suffolk County Superior Court associate justice Jackie Cowen wrote that the lawsuit brought by the State Police Association of Massachusetts failed to show that the mandate, which requires roughly 44,000 state workers to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 17, would cause “irreparable harm” to the union’s members.

Cowen also disagreed with SPAM’s contention that an injunction to delay the mandate while the two sides further negotiated terms and conditions would not adversely affect the public interest, writing that the police union was “focusing on its members to the exclusion of everyone else.”

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“The public interest is, unquestionably, best-served by stopping the spread of the virus, in order to protect people from becoming ill, ensure adequate supply of medical services, and curtail the emergence of new, deadlier variants of the virus,” the judge wrote, noting the evidence showing that unvaccinated individuals are more likely to spread and face complications from COVID-19.

“Suspending the deadline for Union members to obtain full vaccination would be against the public interest which the defendants are charged with protecting,” Cowen wrote, “and cause more harm to the Commonwealth than is caused to the Union by the denial of such relief.”

SPAM, which represents more than 1,800 of the state police’s 2,000-member force, had sought to at least push back the Oct. 17 date as it continued to seek additional benefits for officers, noting that unvaccinated members were already facing deadlines to get their first dose of the two-shot vaccines this month.

Under the governor’s vaccine requirement, state workers can face discipline, including up to termination, for not providing proof of vaccination.

However, Cowen wrote that those deadlines didn’t preclude officers from their choice of vaccine; they could still choose the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and any discipline for missing the Oct. 17 full vaccination deadline could be remedied through the collective bargaining process (the union has also filed a complaint to the state’s Division of Labor Relations).

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Unvaccinated troopers also can get the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine at anytime over the next several weeks to comply with the mandate, which was announced over a month ago on Aug. 19.

During a hearing earlier this week, an attorney representing SPAM said that roughly 20 percent of state police employees remain unvaccinated.

In its lawsuit, the union said it was seeking exemptions allowing officers who refuse to get vaccinated the option to submit to regular COVID-19 testing and wear a face covering on the job instead. They also sought “presumptive protection,” meaning if an officer became ill, was forced to retire, or died from COVID-19, it would be considered a line-of-duty injury and could come with additional financial benefits.

In a statement Friday afternoon, SPAM President Michael Cherven said the union was “disappointed” but respects Cowen’s decision.

Cherven said that “dozens of troopers have already submitted their resignation paperwork.” He said that many plan to leave the “already critically short staffed” state police to return to municipal police departments in Massachusetts that allow for regular testing and masks as an alternative to vaccination.

“It is unfortunate that the Governor and his team have chosen to mandate one of the most stringent vaccine mandates in the country with no reasonable alternatives,” Cherven said. “Throughout COVID, we have been on the front lines protecting the citizens of Massachusetts and beyond. Simply put, all we are asking for are the same basic accommodations that countless other departments have provided to their first responders, and to treat a COVID related illness as a line of duty injury.”

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Baker argued earlier this week that such alternatives would sidestep the “primary objective” of the mandate.

“I want people who are face to face with public folks who work for the commonwealth to be comfortable in knowing that those folks are vaccinated,” he told reporters Wednesday.

“They’re face to face with people they don’t know, so I happen to think it’s important for them to be vaccinated, so that they can be safe,” Baker added.

Read the full ruling:

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