Politics

Maura Healey says State Police, prison officers should be required to get a COVID-19 vaccine

The state's top law enforcement official says the refusal rates are "unacceptable."

Sandra Cotterell, the CEO of Codman Square Health Center, gives Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey a tour of a vaccine site in Dorchester. John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe

Hundreds of Massachusetts State Police and Department of Correction officers have passed up the opportunity to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Maura Healey thinks that shouldn’t be an option.

During an appearance Monday afternoon on GBH radio, the Massachusetts attorney general said her personal opinion was that a COVID-19 vaccine should be mandatory for the state’s police officers and prison guards. Healey, who is the state’s top law enforcement officer, said she was most concerned about the refusal rates among corrections officers.

“They are in a situation where they’re coming into and out of prisons, and they’ve got a captive population,” she said.

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Healey said she wasn’t answering the question from a legal perspective but rather “as a matter of what’s right and practical.” State and federal laws suggest that employers could require the vaccine under a standard that says workers “shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace,” unless individuals have a medical exemption or “sincerely held religious belief” that precludes them from getting a vaccine.

“It can’t be because you don’t believe in vaccines,” Healey said Monday. “That is part of your job. And if you’re unable to do it and safely take care of those who are incarcerated — and captive — and can’t control what is coming into and out of the prison, then I think they ought to be looking for another line of work. Do your job.”

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Police and correctional facilities staff became eligible to get the vaccine during Phase 1 of the state’s three-phase rollout. Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration also allotted portions of Massachusetts’s limited supply of doses so that officers could be vaccinated at work sites, including three state police vaccination sites for troopers and other first responders.

Prison inmates also were offered the vaccine during Phase 1 as part of the Baker administration’s efforts to prioritize those most vulnerable to the virus. More than 7,000 inmates and staff at DOC and county prisons in Massachusetts have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, and at least 22 inmates have died due to the virus, according to state figures tracked by the American Civil Liberties Union.

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However, as GBH first reported last month, more than half of DOC workers declined the vaccine when offered, compared to a near 70 percent acceptance rate among state prisoners. And as The Boston Globe reported last week, 845 — or about 30 percent of — state police employees have not been vaccinated at department clinics.

Officials say those numbers are likely undercounts, since some DOC and state police employees could have gotten vaccinated at other sites. At the same time, it’s reflective of national trends showing higher refusal rates among prison guards and police officers due to vaccine hesitancy and misinformation. It’s also a decision that increases risk for the populations those groups are employed to protect.

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Healey said Monday that it was “unacceptable.”

“If you’re going to sign up for public work, and receive a paycheck from the taxpayers of this state that’s sacrificed and lost so much … you can’t get a vaccination? It’s irresponsible,” she said.

A pandemic-era vaccine requirement wouldn’t be unprecedented in Massachusetts.

The Baker administration required most students to get the flu vaccine for several months, before dropping the mandate in January due to the mild flu season.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Downing also told the State House News Service last week that the COVID-19 vaccine should be a work requirement for teachers and first responders.

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Healey, who has taken an increasingly active interest in the state’s vaccine rollout, is also widely viewed as a possible 2022 gubernatorial candidate.

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