When it comes to mandatory COVID-19 vaccines, where is Massachusetts? Like everywhere else: split between blue and red.
Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat who might run for governor in 2022, recently said State Police and Department of Correction officers shouldn’t be able to say no. Ben Downing, a Democrat and former state senator who definitely is running for governor, also said State Police, teachers, and other first responders should have to be vaccinated to remain on the job.
But Republican Governor Charlie Baker is on the side of nudging versus mandating. Asked during a WGBH radio interview if the shots should be required for State Police and correctional officers, Baker said he understood that “some people have some very good reasons” for not wanting to get the vaccine . . . and I don’t think you should put somebody in a position where they have to choose between a vaccine that they may be very concerned about taking for some very good reasons, and their job, at least not at this point in the process.”
A country that stands divided over face masks, social distancing, and lockdowns is also divided over the coronavirus vaccine. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, nearly 4 in 10 Republicans say they will either “definitely not” get vaccinated or will do so “only if required.” Yet in a state like Massachusetts, where Republicans account for less than 10 percent of registered voters, it’s still a little surprising to hear Baker play to a small partisan crowd during a deadly pandemic.
Of course, resistance to the vaccine is not all about red/blue politics. Distrust of government or fears about vaccine safety also factor in, along with medical conditions and religious beliefs.
Baker knows what it’s like to deal with a noisy minority that sees dangerous government overreach in common-sense health policies. Last August, his administration announced a requirement that all students attending kindergarten through college must get a flu shot by Dec. 31. In response, a group of Massachusetts residents started a “Flu-You Baker” protest movement and filed a class-action lawsuit against him. In January, the state dropped the requirement, citing the mild flu season. Last week, the suit was dismissed without prejudice, according to Tom Mason, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. Given that unpleasant history, Baker is probably trying to give himself some political wiggle room. But when it comes to people on the public payroll getting vaccinated against a deadly disease, the message from the state should be loud and clear: Get vaccinated.
Granted, there are constitutional issues. The suit filed in federal court that challenged Baker’s flu shot mandate argued that it infringed on the right to religious freedom, the right of parents to make health care decisions for their children, and the right of children to an education.
But a policy for students is different from one for adults who work for the state. And, as Healey said, she wasn’t giving a legal opinion. “I’m answering this question as a matter of what’s right and practical and common sense,” she said in a radio interview.
Downing, who was the first Democrat to announce a run for governor, is also standing strongly behind a mandatory vaccine for police, teachers, and others. “I think it’s the role of state leaders to do everything they can to make sure we don’t go through this again,” he told Statehouse News. “Vaccination is the way to make sure we don’t go through it again. To simply shrug our shoulders and say, ‘Well, some people are going to decline it.’ That just flat-out isn’t good enough.”
Baker hasn’t ruled out a mandatory vaccine requirement; his focus right now is on getting everyone vaccinated who wants to get vaccinated as quickly as possible, a spokesman said. It’s also fair to ask: Why the focus on State Police and correctional officers? What about social workers and all state employees who interact with the public and each other? And how much time should a person be given before their job is at stake?
Those are legitimate questions. But with so many lives at stake from COVID-19, leadership means having the political courage to answer them.
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.