Vaccine Status Causing Stir In Mass. House

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Taking aim at an unnamed group of representatives, House Speaker Ronald Mariano aired frustrations Monday about lawmakers who he said have bristled at COVID-19 vaccine requirements and said the resistance complicates decisions about bringing the Legislature back into the State House.

Mariano told reporters that some of the 160 representatives he oversees oppose the idea of a House-specific vaccine mandate and refuse to declare their vaccination status, a stance he said puts other members — including at least one who is undergoing treatment for cancer — at greater risk.

The Quincy Democrat described himself as "the CEO for 500 people who are going to come into this building" and indicated that he will not feel comfortable asking all legislators to return to in-person work until leaders find a way to manage the tension.

That could further complicate the already-unclear outlook of reopening the State House, which remains shuttered to the public a year and a half after it closed its doors.

A new plan from President Biden on vaccine requirements could impact millions of people.

"I don't want to have a two-tiered system where I'm asking folks to come in and work beside people who will not declare whether or not they've been vaccinated," Mariano said. "We have people currently in the House of Representatives who are being treated, who are immune compromised. I'm not going to ask those people to sit next to people who won't declare, and right now we're investigating ways in which we can deal with that."

"What do you do when someone won't declare?" Mariano continued. "How would you like to sit down and work beside someone and not know whether or not they had COVID or had been exposed to COVID? We're not going to ask our membership to put their health at risk. My primary goal here is the health and safety for the folks who work here, and I'm not going to ask people to do that until I'm sure I have a process that protects the health and safety of (lawmakers)."

Mariano's office did not have figures available Monday afternoon indicating what percentage of representatives are fully vaccinated.

Although some lawmakers have resumed using their offices, the State House remains closed to the public and both branches continue to operate in a mostly remote format. Legislative leaders had previously targeted the fall for a possible reopening without offering details.

In recent weeks, some lawmakers have signed onto legislation that would effectively prohibit government officials, businesses and other organizations from limiting access to some public and private spaces based on vaccination status.

Rep. Peter Durant, a Spencer Republican, filed a bill (HD 4416) that would ban government buildings, schools, and businesses from requiring vaccination against COVID-19 as a condition of entry. Durant said he intends for his bill to apply to private employers as well as public offices.

Durant told the News Service that he believes COVID-19 vaccine mandates are a "knee-jerk" reaction, arguing instead that every individual should choose for themselves whether to get the shots. Since filing his bill, he said, he has received "more emails than any bill I have ever filed" in support during his 10 years in office.

"You have to ask what it is you're trying to accomplish by mandating that they be vaccinated," Durant said. "Who are you trying to protect? I think you end up in this circular logic that says if you're trying to protect those who have been vaccinated because they think they'll catch it, why are you still vaccinated? You get a lesser version of COVID, you don't get as sick. Why are you afraid of people who don't get vaccinated? Isn't it their choice?"

Durant said that he is vaccinated against COVID-19. He and his fiancée got immunized against the virus before their wedding, he said, so they could avoid problems traveling.

He described himself as "not anti-vaccine."

Asked about colleagues who may be immunocompromised, Durant replied that those lawmakers should opt to "stay home."

"Those folks need to do what they feel is right for them, and that's the whole point. It's what you feel protects you," he said. "If I was immunocompromised or I had a lot of pre-existing conditions, I would say I don't want to be around people again, but that would be my personal choice. I don't want to make everybody on the planet cater to me."

Twelve other lawmakers cosponsored Durant's bill: Republican Reps. David DeCoste of Norwell, Shawn Dooley of Norfolk, Joseph McKenna of Webster, Marc Lombardo of Billerica, Susan Gifford of Wareham, Timothy Whelan of Brewster, Donald Berthiaume of Spencer, Alyson Sullivan of Abington, Mathew Muratore of Plymouth, and Steven Xiarhos of Barnstable, as well as Democratic Reps. Colleen Garry of Dracut and Jeffrey Turco of Winthrop.

Sullivan also filed a bill (HD 4452) that would ban COVID-19 vaccine passports, prevent any public employee from being terminated for not getting vaccinated, and require all public facilities and services to be fully accessible to those who are not vaccinated. Her bill has four additional cosponsors.

Massachusetts has one of the highest vaccination rates in the nation, with more than 76% of the eligible 12-and-older population fully vaccinated, according to Centers for Disease Control Data.

Confirmed COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been rising in Massachusetts in recent weeks, fueled by the more infectious Delta variant and with a sizable chunk — particularly more serious infectious — among those who remain unvaccinated. As of last week, the Department of Public Health recorded 23,858 breakthrough cases among 4.52 million fully vaccinated residents, a rate of about 0.53%.

After the speaker voiced his concerns during a Monday afternoon press conference, Mariano's office provided the News Service with a statement from Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, who is battling pancreatic cancer.

"I am deeply disappointed in my colleagues who put political showmanship ahead of the lives of those of us who are managing life threatening conditions and the important business of the House during the pandemic," Ferrante, a Gloucester Democrat, said.

In August, when Republican Gov. Charlie Baker ordered about 42,000 state employees to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or secure an exemption, Mariano's office said a vaccine mandate will feature in the House's return-to-work policy still being developed by a group of representatives.

Senate President Karen Spilka, who participated in Monday's leadership meeting with Mariano and Baker, on Aug. 24 told all senators and staff they must show proof they are fully vaccinated by Oct. 15.

"There are problems with the vaccine mandate," Mariano said Monday when asked about a vaccine requirement as a possible benchmark for reopening the building. "What do I do with a representative who wants to come in who won't declare (their vaccination status)? Those are the names on the bills. Do I throw him out? Do I ask him to come in and sit next to a rep who is compromised, who is getting treatment, who wants to come into their office? What would you do?"

Copyright State House News Service
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