As the highly transmissible Delta variant drives a national surge in COVID-19 cases and the federal government recommends boosters, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker indicated Wednesday that a vaccine mandate may be coming for the state’s 42,000 executive branch employees.
Such a step — which Baker has resisted until now — could resemble plans in New York, California, and Washington State, as well as in the City of Boston, where Acting Mayor Kim Janey said last week that 18,000 municipal employees must be inoculated or tested regularly. The expected pivot underscores the seriousness of the current moment in the spread of the virus, with COVID metrics in Massachusetts rising, though still falling far short of earlier surges.
During an appearance on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio” Wednesday, Baker said that his administration is “very much interested” in implementing some kind of vaccine mandate for state workers and “I fully expect we’ll be pursuing [it] shortly.” But he added that there are “many flavors to this” and resisted characterizing plans like Boston’s as firm requirements.
“Some people call it a mandate — it’s actually really not a mandate,” given that workers can opt for testing, Baker said.
State Auditor Suzanne Bump and State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg have said they will require their employees to either provide proof of vaccination or undergo weekly testing. But their staff represent a small number of public employees compared with the tens of thousands under Baker’s purview.
States including New York and California have also required public employees to be inoculated against the virus and are providing the testing alternative, too.
In Washington, Governor Jay Inslee has said most state employees must get vaccinated or face firing. They may seek exemptions for religious or medical reasons but do not have the option to test regularly instead.
David Holway, the national president of the National Association of Government Employees, which represents 12,000 Massachusetts executive branch employees and thousands more in the state, said Baker should “fish or cut bait” and quickly announce whatever plan he has selected.
“We’re at a crossroads here,” Holway said. “Most employers will follow the lead of the governor on these things.”
The issue of vaccine mandates is a thorny one for public sector unions. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said federal law doesn’t prevent employers from mandating vaccines. But companies may need to offer exemptions for religious or medical reasons.
NAGE is encouraging all its members to be vaccinated, but Holway said the union will fight for members who are dismissed for refusing vaccines — even if they’re unlikely to win a court battle.
Holway encouraged Baker to follow the lead of other Massachusetts officials in mandating vaccines or regular testing.
Until recently, Baker said he had no plans to mandate inoculations for executive branch employees.
“The idea that I would kick somebody out of a job — and especially in the kind of economy we have now — because, quote unquote, they wouldn’t get vaccinated right away on an [emergency use authorization]-approved vaccine . . . No. I’m not gonna play that game,” Baker said in May.
COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have all been ticking up in Massachusetts since hitting lows in June and July, though the latest increases are nowhere near the peaks recorded this past winter and early in the pandemic. The state still has some of the nation’s lowest hospitalization rates and highest vaccination rates. That leaves it far better positioned than the country as a whole and, in particular, states with lower vaccination rates, where health care workers are becoming overwhelmed again and ICU beds have grown scarce.
Baker also on Wednesday addressed the news that the federal government plans to recommend COVID-19 booster shots for most Americans to shore up their protection. The Biden administration has outlined a plan for Americans who received either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine to get a booster shot eight months after their second dose, starting Sept. 20.
Baker said he is an enthusiastic supporter of booster shots, particularly for the most vulnerable populations that received the vaccine first. But he lamented that the Biden administration hadn’t provided more information to state leaders about the plan before the news became public.
“I’m going to do something I don’t normally do, which is I’m going to pick on some of my colleagues in government,” Baker said. He described a Tuesday phone call with Biden administration officials and other states’ governors in which booster shots were discussed, but “no one said anything about announcing a program for boosters.”
“I’m kind of bummed about the fact that I found out about this last night when we were on the phone with those guys yesterday morning,” Baker said. “So, I have no guidance. All right? Even though we spent an hour on the phone yesterday with all the people who probably knew something about what this is all about.”
Once the federal government’s plans are clear, Baker said, he will “move very aggressively to make sure that those who are eligible to get boosters get them.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. Biden administration officials said at a press briefing Wednesday that they were working closely with states on pandemic response.
Baker’s comments come as he faces mounting pressure to enact other COVID-19 restrictions, particularly in schools. US Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Boston Democrat, called on Baker this week to require masks and vaccines in Massachusetts schools.
“Because many classrooms, filled with unvaccinated children and lacking proper ventilation, have the potential to be petri dishes for the coronavirus, there is growing support by educators and public health experts for requiring vaccination for all school personnel,” Pressley wrote. “There needs to be a clear equitable approach that leaves no resident of the Commonwealth behind.”
Baker has strongly recommended mask-wearing in schools, especially in classrooms with children who don’t have access to vaccines because it has not been approved for their age cohort. But he stopped short of requiring it, instead allowing local leaders to make the decision. He said on the radio Wednesday that he believes “virtually every” Massachusetts student too young to be vaccinated will be wearing a mask in the classroom this fall.
Material from the Associated Press, the State House News Service, and from prior Globe stories was used in this report.