Mandatory vaccination debate is percolating

No easy answers as pols grapple with the issue

AS MORE AND MORE people get vaccinated, questions on what to do with people who refuse to get their shot(s) keep coming up. Should vaccinations be optional, required, or just required for people in certain occupations? 

It’s not an easy question to answer. Getting more people vaccinated improves the chances of herd immunity and the possibility of putting COVID behind us. But requiring people to get a vaccination – particularly if the vaccine is authorized for emergency use only – smacks of Big Brother and rubs a lot of people the wrong way. 

It’s an interesting issue to watch in the percolating race for governor – both from a policy sense and as a way of gauging the political instincts of the candidates and potential candidates. 

So far, none of them has called for mandatory vaccinations for everyone. Ben Downing, the former Democatic state senator and the only official candidate for governor, jumped into the debate after news reports about the slow uptake of vaccine among members of the State Police. “No vaccine, no job,” Downing tweeted. “When you sign up to protect and serve, you need to keep the commitment to protect in every way.” 

In a subsequent interview with State House News Service, Downing indicated he would take the same stance on any worker in the public sector who deals with the public – from health care workers to teachers. (Most of those workers represent key voting constituencies and oppose the idea of mandatory vaccinations. The Massachusetts Teachers Association, for example, wants nothing to do with the idea.)

In an interview on Greater Boston, Attorney General Maura Healey adopted a similar position during a discussion about the State Police and prison guards. “If you’re going to sign up for public work and receive a paycheck from the taxpayers of this state who have sacrificed and lost so much … I’m thinking too of our small businesses, the whole economy, the devastation of our communities, the devastation to communities of color, the heartache, think about the deaths, dozens and dozens in so many nursing homes around the state,” Healey said. “You can’t get a vaccination? It’s irresponsible.”

Healey’s comments came with a hedge. She said she was not answering the question from a legal standpoint, but “as a matter of what’s right, practical, and common sense.” 

During an interview on Boston Public Radio, Gov. Charlie Baker was pressed on requiring members of the State Police to be vaccinated. He indicated the question was actually much broader, ticking off all the employees paid with tax dollars who deal with the public. 

“I don’t think you should put somebody in a position where they have to choose between a vaccine that they may be very concerned about taking for some very good reasons and their jobs, at least at this point in the process,” Baker said. “I want to concentrate on getting people vaccinated first.”

Baker indicated he might reconsider his position after more time has gone by.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

The issue of a vaccine pass has received less attention, but in some respects it’s the flip side of the mandatory vaccine debate. If you don’t require everyone to get vaccinated, can you limit interactions with those who refuse to get vaccinated by permitting access to various public spaces or to forms of travel only to those with passes showing they have received their shot(s)?

Baker hedged. “It’s a conversation worth having for all kinds of reasons but I would rather have the feds give us a framework to begin with,” Baker said. “Having 50 states doing 50 different things on this could get pretty complicated.”