When a state trooper pulls over a car, the driver of that car doesn’t have a lot of options for safely interacting with that trooper in a pandemic, other than pulling on his own mask.
An inmate at any of the state’s prisons has even fewer choices about interacting with correction officers. Inmates are, after all, a captive audience.
The words were hardly out of Baker’s mouth last week when the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, which represents some 3,000 Department of Correction personnel, sent out a memo to its members saying, “We feel this Executive Order fails to uphold your individual rights and is unconstitutional.” The union’s executive board announced it “has begun the process of pursuing all legal and legislative remedies at our disposal, up to and including an injunction in court.”
Baker signed the order stating that all employees who were not vaccinated or individually approved for an exemption “due to medical disability or . . . a sincerely held religious belief,” by Oct. 17, “will be subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination.” Unlike Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s vaccination mandate for City of Boston employees, issued days earlier, Baker’s order did not include a weekly testing alternative.
“As the largest employer in Massachusetts, we felt it was important for us to step forward and make a statement about the value and the importance of getting vaccinated, and I certainly hope that many other employers will take a look at what we’re doing here and follow suit,” Baker said.
Some 2,000 contract employees also come under the Baker mandate, which follows similar decisions by scores of private employers requiring workers now returning to the workplace to show proof of vaccination. The highly transmissible Delta variant has, of course, changed the trajectory of the vaccine debate.
And Monday, one of the remaining rationales for vaccination hesitancy was removed when the US Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, which had been administered under an emergency use authorization until now.
That approval spurred the Pentagon Monday to announce that all members of the military would be required to be vaccinated.
Here in Massachusetts, Attorney General Maura Healey said Monday that Baker’s mandate was “absolutely legal.” But the debate continues anyway.
Sure, some of the pushback Baker is getting is the usual tugging and pulling of anything involving unions and collective bargaining agreements. But the Massachusetts Teachers Union, the Boston Teachers Union, the Massachusetts Nurses Association, and SEIU Local 509, which represents human service workers in the public and private sectors, have all lined up to support vaccine mandates.
However, State Police union head Mike Cherven criticized the governor’s mandate as “crudely done,” telling the Globe, “It was hurried and rushed with no input from any association.”
In fact, the State Police made some headlines back in March, when despite getting three special clinics set up to make sure their needs and schedules were accommodated, only 2,002 of 2,847 State Police employees, including civilians, had received at least one dose, according to data released in response to a Globe request.
But the response from the union representing prison guards was both the most strident and the most bewildering.
Even as COVID-19 was running rampant through state prisons last winter, and both inmates and correction officers were prioritized for vaccinations by the Baker administration, DOC said last February that roughly half of prison staffers refused to get the vaccine at work. (About 69 percent of inmates at the time opted to be vaccinated.)
Fast forward to this summer’s battle against the highly contagious Delta variant: After a virtually COVID-free spring, 30 cases were recently reported in DOC facilities, 29 of them at the maximum-security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center earlier this month. State officials report that as of Aug. 18, 61 percent of DOC staff and 80 percent of prisoners were fully vaccinated.
As of last Friday, 13 correction officers at Souza and six at Bridgewater had tested positive for the virus, but every state correction facility was reporting positive cases in the “less than five” range.
According to the report of the special master appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court to monitor COVID cases in the prisons, some 3,074 DOC staffers had refused vaccinations, and there have been confirmed cases among 766 correction officers and 180 other DOC staffers.
Keep in mind that prison visitation (except for lawyers) was largely suspended during the pandemic, resuming only this past June — and those no-contact visits also require temperature checks.
Like every other congregate-care facility — especially one whose occupants can’t pack up and go home at will — it’s critical to keep the virus out. Only mass vaccination will get that done. Surely union officials understand the importance of that — and of keeping their own membership and their families safe.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.