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Healey will end the COVID vaccination mandate for Massachusetts workers

Hours after she was elected governor of the state Healey met with Baker at the Statehouse to discuss the upcoming transfer of power.
Steven Senne
Hours after she was elected governor of the state Healey met with Baker at the Statehouse to discuss the upcoming transfer of power.

Gov. Maura Healey said Wednesday that she’s 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.

The vaccination mandate ends on May 11. Healey said the requirement 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. “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.”

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.

Since their implementation, vaccination mandates have been the target of several legal challenges. Baker’s requirement drew lawsuits from unions representing state troopers and correction officers.

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%.

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.

Kate Walsh, Healey’s secretary of health and human services, said Massachusetts has come a long way from the early days of the pandemic, with vaccines, treatments, tests and protective equipment now widely available.

“While we will continue living with COVID-19, we can now incorporate the tools to manage this virus into our standing response to respiratory illness within our communities and health care system,” Walsh said in the statement.

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 last week, compared with a nearly 14% positivity rate in early January, according to state data.

The vast majority of Massachusetts residents (95%) have receivedat 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.

The federal COVID public health emergency also is scheduled to end on May 11. Healey’s office said Wednesday the state public health emergency will end the same day, but the governor will file legislation to extend some 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 driver, instead of requiring two EMTs.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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