PROVINCETOWN — Town Manager Alex Morse announced a new health policy for town employees on Monday: either Covid-19 vaccination or weekly virus testing will be required.
The policy will take effect this coming Monday, Sept. 20, for non-union town employees, and shortly after that for union employees.
“We have two meetings set up next week for collective bargaining, one with the union representing the police department, and one with the AFSCME chapter that represents the DPW workers and some of the clerical employees in town hall,” Morse told the select board.
“I am not aware of what their exact position is,” Morse told the Independent by email, “but I do know that they wanted to have the weekly testing as an alternative to the mandate.” Since that’s part of the new policy, Morse is optimistic that all employees will be included “very soon.”
The alternative to vaccination will be a rapid test conducted during work hours, Morse said.
Meanwhile, in Eastham all unvaccinated town staff will be tested weekly starting Monday, Sept. 20, Town Administrator Jacqui Beebe told the Independent on Tuesday. “The town is providing test kits, and it will be self-administered at the beginning of the work week,” she said. “Some unions have requested that all staff in their unit do the weekly testing.”
Beebe said a large majority of Eastham town employees were vaccinated. “It seems like we have roughly 12 staff not vaccinated — a 90-percent vaccination rate,” she said.
Eastham’s policy is therefore, in practical terms, the equivalent of Provincetown’s for now: all town staff will have to be either vaccinated or tested weekly. “The policy will be in effect for four weeks,” said Beebe, “and then we will revisit it.”
Provincetown’s policy was announced to town staff on Tuesday, Sept. 7 — two days before the Biden administration announced a similar policy that would affect all private companies with more than 100 employees. Those rules, implemented through the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, are not binding on state or local governments, however.
On Sept. 9, President Biden also announced that all federal workers and all independent health-care organizations that accept Medicare or Medicaid funding must implement a full Covid vaccine mandate for their staff, without any option to test instead of vaccinate. Those rules apply to the federal executive branch, including the military, but not to Congressional or judicial employees. They include limited exemptions for religious or medical reasons.
Locally, the health-care mandate will include Outer Cape Health Services, which had already reached a 98-percent vaccination rate without a mandate, according to Gerry Desautels, communications director at OCHS.
“We did announce in late July that we would be moving to a mandate, which took effect on Sept. 1,” said Desautels. “Employees who fall under a qualifying exemption under the law are required to get weekly testing. OCHS welcomes the mandate from the White House.”
Late July was when the American Medical Association and 57 other health-care organizations endorsed a vaccination requirement for all health-care workers. A wave of vaccine requirements were implemented then, including for New York City employees and all health-care workers in California.
Town Manager Darrin Tangeman of Truro told the Independent this week that “we are awaiting review from our town counsel of the president’s executive order and the path moving forward. Whatever their recommendation, the town is well-positioned to facilitate vaccinations and testing in the future,” he added.
Tangeman declined to provide information on the vaccination rate among Truro’s staff.
In Wellfleet, interim Town Administrator Charlie Sumner told the Independent that town officials had “not had any discussions or deliberations about mandatory measures to date. Additionally, I do not have any information on our vaccination rate amongst staff.”
At the County Level
Barnstable County government and the Barnstable County Sheriff’s Office are two legally distinct entities. The county government includes the health department that has supervised the region’s Covid response, including many months of vaccination clinics and drive-through testing sites.
“At this point, there haven’t been any official decisions with regard to the vaccine mandate and how the county will respond,” Barnstable County Health Communications Coordinator Bethany Traverse told the Independent. “We are still waiting for more direction or information from CDC.
“With regard to employee vaccination rates, that information is not available at this time, but it may become available as we explore how to proceed,” said Traverse.
According to Sheriff Jim Cummings, “we at the Sheriff’s Office have a 78-percent vaccination rate and have no plans to mandate at this time.” The sheriff’s office employs about 340 people, and its primary responsibility is supervision of the county jail in Bourne.
By Sept. 20, vaccinated employees should have filed copies of their vaccination cards with the town’s human resources dept., Morse told the Independent. “I will then be able to provide more accurate figures, overall and by department,” he said.
In the meantime, Morse noted that 24 of the 26 year-round employees of the Provincetown Police Dept. are vaccinated.
“We are one of the first municipalities in Massachusetts to implement an employee mandate for vaccination,” Morse said to the select board. “Reflecting on the president’s decision … it’s obviously a model for both the public sector and the private sector.”
Legally, the president’s mandate doesn’t bind town or county governments. Over the coming weeks, each government entity will be figuring out for itself what to do next.