Gov. Maura Healey is ending the sweeping and controversial mandate that state employees be vaccinated against COVID.
The decision reflects the changing picture of COVID three years after the start of the pandemic — and more than two years after vaccines first became available. Healey said she’s also ending the state COVID health emergency, which began in 2020 and gave the governor’s office temporary powers to respond to the COVID crisis.
The health emergency and the vaccination mandate for state workers will be lifted on May 11, the same day that the federal COVID public health emergency ends.
Healey said the vaccination requirement for state workers saved “countless lives,” but that it’s time to update the state’s COVID response.
“We’ve made important progress in the fight against COVID-19,” Healey said in a statement Wednesday. “We know that we have the tools to manage this virus — vaccines, masking, testing, getting treatments and staying home when sick — and we’ve reached the point where we can update our guidance to reflect where we are now.”
An end to the vaccination requirement
The vaccination requirement for state workers began in October 2021 under former Gov. Charlie Baker, and at the time was one of the strictest mandates in the country. Baker ordered more than 41,000 workers to get vaccinated or secure a medical or religious exemption.
Baker’s office previously said about 1,000 workers resigned or were fired for failing to comply with the mandate. Officials denied 89% of the requests they received for medical or religious exemptions, granting just 256 of more than 2,300 requests, WBUR reported last year.
Healey’s office said the mandate, known as Executive Order 595, raised the percentage of fully vaccinated executive department employees from about 76% to more than 99%.
Since their implementation, vaccination mandates have been the target of several legal challenges. The requirement for state workers drew lawsuits from unions representing state troopers and correction officers.
The State Police Association of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union praised Healey’s decision to rescind the mandate.
“The terminating of hard working, loyal state employees made a negative impact,” Dennis Martin, president of the correction officers union, said in a statement. “I’m thrilled to see the governor has taken bold action in reversing this destructive policy.”
Federal and state requirements for health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID will remain in place, the governor’s office said. This includes staff in the state’s departments of developmental services and youth services.
The future of testing and vaccinations
Kate Walsh, Healey’s secretary of health and human services, said in an interview that administration officials plan to treat COVID more like other respiratory illnesses. Massachusetts has come a long way from the early days of the pandemic, with vaccines, treatments, tests and protective equipment now widely available, she said.
“We have learned how to live with this, and work with this, and keep schools open, and worship with this, and go to bars and football games,” Walsh said. “We have a lot of tools in our tool kit. We also have other infectious illnesses we need to be aware of.”
Walsh said the conclusion of the public health emergency won’t prevent the state from ramping up testing or vaccinations if there’s a new COVID variant or another surge in the future.
“We certainly know how to do it. So I think we’ll be able to do that,” she said.
The state requirement to wear face masks inside certain health care facilities will end with the state health emergency, but individual facilities still can require masks.
Leaders of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association said in a statement that it’s important to remember that even as the COVID crisis has abated, the health care system remains “under intense pressure,” and asked people to comply with the policies at individual health care facilities.
The end of COVID testing sites
In another sign of the changing times, health officials also plan to close the last 11 free state-funded COVID testing sites in Massachusetts, at the end of March.
The level of coronavirus detected in Boston-area wastewater has been declining since the beginning of the year. COVID cases and hospitalizations also have fallen, with less than 5% percent of people testing positive in early March, compared with a nearly 14% positivity rate in early January, according to state data.
The vast majority of Massachusetts residents (95%) have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But less than 30% have received an updated booster shot.
Vaccines do not prevent all COVID infections, but public health officials say they are critical for protecting against serious illness and death from COVID.
Healey’s office said the governor will file legislation to extend some emergency rules put in place during the pandemic.
The legislation would allow dialysis centers more time to return to pre-COVID staffing levels; temporarily expand who can provide medication in community settings; and permanently allow advanced life support ambulance transports with one EMT and one first responder driver, instead of requiring two EMTs.
Still, Carlene Pavlos, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, said she’s concerned that the public may misinterpret the end of the state health emergency as the end of the COVID threat altogether.
“People are continuing to get sick and to die from COVID,” she said. “For that reason, the state can’t stop its work to continue promoting testing and vaccination.
“COVID is not over,” she said, “but we are at a different stage.”