COVID vaccine waivers were given to some Mass. COs, then they were told it was ‘in error’

As of Wednesday, about 58 unvaccinated correction officers had been suspended without pay

By Alison Kuznitz
BOSTON — A Massachusetts correction officer says it would be catastrophic if he lost his job over Gov. Charlie Baker’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

His pension and his family’s current financial security are in jeopardy — as are his religious beliefs that rule out the possibility of getting vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The correction officer, who spoke to MassLive on the condition of anonymity, said he was initially approved for a religious exemption under Baker’s order, which required more than 40,000 Executive Department employees and contractors to be fully immunized by Oct. 17.

A pharmacist prepares a syringe with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
A pharmacist prepares a syringe with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

But the officer — alongside multiple other state correction officers, according to family members who also spoke to MassLive on the condition of anonymity — was thrown a curveball weeks later. He’s worried it could trigger a staffing shortage at facilities across Massachusetts.

“We are writing to inform you that your recent approval was issued in error,” an unsigned letter from the Department of Correction states. “We apologize for this error and must inform you that a Secretariat level panel has made the determination to rescind the exemption as your request does not meet the standard of a sincerely held religious belief.”

Still, after the Oct. 17 deadline passed, some unvaccinated DOC staffers were allowed inside facilities, as long as they stated their intent to get immunized by a self-imposed date, the correction officer said.

The correction officer, according to the letter obtained by MassLive, had erroneously stated the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were produced with fetal tissues. Since that is not true, the DOC stated in the letter, the officer’s exemption request was denied.

The officer told MassLive, however, that he did not mention fetal cells in his exemption request form. He reached out to the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union for help.

“It seems like they’re just calling an audible on every letter they send,” the officer said of the DOC. “There’s no consistency.”

For now, he’s still employed — but that could change in a matter of days. As of Wednesday, about 58 unvaccinated correction officers were suspended without pay, said Kevin Flanagan, the legislative representative for the union.

The DOC did not respond to MassLive questions Wednesday about the total number of employees who are vaccinated or had been approved for religious or medical exemptions.

Baker’s office has yet to disclose vaccination rate by individual state offices and agencies. Nearly 1,600 Executive Department employees were out of compliance early last week.

Other DOC rejection letters, which rescinded previously approved vaccine waivers, said officers had not established a sincerely held religious belief. Rather, their exemption request had articulated “a philosophical viewpoint and a distrust in the vaccine,” according to the letter shared with MassLive.

Officers who were initially approved for a vaccine waiver were offered multiple accommodations, including mask-wearing and regular COVID-19 testing. The DOC later backtracked on those options, which officers and family members say have become routine throughout the pandemic.

“The Department’s obligation to protect the safety of your colleagues, prisoners, and members of the public during this ongoing and serious global pandemic, would require finding you a new position within the Department,” the DOC stated in the exemption rejection letter sent earlier this month. “This would be an undue hardship on the ability of the Department of Correction to manage its operations.”

Yet just this week, the DOC — in a memo without any reference to vaccination status — said visitors, attorneys and volunteers could enter facilities if they produced a negative rapid COVID test result.

It’s too early to know how many unvaccinated correction officers will change their minds and roll up their sleeves, likely for the sake of their family’s wellbeing.

Some people are already wavering, said a family member of a correction officer, describing the decision as ripping their souls out. A spouse of another correction officer said her husband won’t get the vaccine “no matter what.”

“There’s literally no way,” she said. “I know of a guard who got walked off because he wasn’t going to comply.”

Inmates, some of whom have built relationships with correction officers for more than a decade, can sense the tension spurred by the vaccine mandate.

The correction officer who was approved and then later denied a vaccine waiver fears inmates could eventually take advantage of the situation, particularly if facilities do end up short-staffed.

“They definitely see that we’re torn,” the officer said. “It just makes our jobs harder if they see we’re weak.”

Baker, bracing for a staffing shortage at the DOC, issued an order on Oct. 12 activating up to 250 Mass. National Guard personnel.

Other contingency plans from the department and Baker administration remain unclear. The union representing correction officers said state officials offered a “vague” three-tiered approach.

Some prisons may be closed, and staff from the DOC headquarters in Milford could be transferred to correctional facilities, according to a union memo. Retirees could also fill vacancies.

Earlier this month, a federal judge denied a motion for a preliminary injunction sought by the union, which was arguing that a COVID-19 vaccine mandate was a violation of their rights.

“The Religious and Medical Exemption process has been an absolute disaster,” the union said in an Oct. 20 memo.

©2021 Advance Local Media LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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