Town employees oppose possible covid vaccine mandate

Sep 22, 2021

Concern for community-wide health and safety butted against people’s wish to choose whether or not to get vaccinated at the Sept. 22 Board of Health meeting.

The board was having a preliminary discussion about potentially creating a vaccination policy for town employees. Six town employees, all of whom are part of unions, spoke against a potential mandate — arguing that a mandate would violate their rights and lead to employees quitting their jobs at a time when most departments are already understaffed.

The board has not yet drafted a mandate or any other policy. 

Dr. Amy Wiegandt, the chair of the Board of Health, noted that the town’s vaccination rate — about 50% — is not high enough to stop the virus’ spread through herd immunity. She said she strongly urges everyone to get vaccinated, not just to protect themselves but to protect others.

Wiegandt said that the current delta variant is more virulent than the variant that was spreading last spring, and that children are now getting sick and dying from covid.

She also said that the longer the virus circulates, the more likely it is that variants causing even higher death rates will emerge.

“If you want to save your life, go get vaccinated — if you want to save your children and everybody else,” Wiegandt said. “And if you’re a police officer or a firefighter, protect and serve. Protect yourself and protect everyone else.”

Wiegandt said that the vaccines are safe, which has been proven by the Center for Disease Control. She noted that vaccine mandates are already a part of everyday life. Various vaccinations are already mandatory for children attending public school or people enlisting in the military, for example.

All of the town employees who spoke at the meeting were against a vaccine mandate, and said that if a mandate was imposed, some people would quit their jobs. Police officers Lt. John Gerard and Patrolman Eric Machado and school bus drivers Marie Ferreira and Tonya Johnson said that their departments are already understaffed, and might not be able to function if employees quit due to a vaccine mandate.

“We can’t get kids to school now,” said Ferreira.

Many of those who spoke repeated debunked vaccination claims.

Deanna Semple of the Wareham Education Association argued that having had covid should be considered the same as having been vaccinated.

“We don’t know if [people who have had covid] have immunity,” Wiegandt said. “Many people who have immunity [from having covid] don’t have lasting immunity.”

Wiegandt explained that the Centers for Disease Control has proven that those who have contracted covid see longer-lasting, stronger immunity after getting vaccinated.

Gerard repeated several times that those who are vaccinated can still catch and spread covid. While that is true, getting vaccinated greatly lowers the chance that someone will catch or spread the virus

He repeatedly interrupted Wiegandt, saying he was not interested in “specifics.”

“It seems that we’re more worried about protecting everyone else, but my understanding is there’s no 100 percent that if you’re vaccinated, you’re not going to give it to anybody,” Gerard said. 

Wiegandt said that while that is correct, if 80% of the population gets vaccinated, the overall amount of virus in the community will decrease. She said that vaccinated people are about 90% less likely to contract covid after being exposed to the virus. 

Gerard said that a number of officers are “very scared” of the vaccine, and referenced a database of side effects. Gerard seemed to be referencing VAERS, a database that includes all adverse events experienced after vaccination, regardless of whether or not there is a proven causal link between the vaccine and the event.

“You guys have your opinion because you’re in the medical field, you have one way of looking at things,” Gerard said.

Wiegandt said that the side effects of the vaccine, like having a fever for 24 hours or redness at the injection site, are far less severe than those of covid.

The long-term effects of covid can include long-lasting damage to the heart, lungs, and brain; loss of smell and taste; fatigue; and memory, concentration, or sleep problems, among others.

“If I choose not to get vaccinated, if I die, it’s on me,” Gerard said. 

Gerard did not address the possibility that he could spread potentially fatal cases of covid to the people he interacts with as a police officer. 

Earlier in the meeting, Phinney said that it is everyone’s responsibility to protect those around them. And Wiegandt noted that those who need help from first responders also have rights, just like town employees.

“You can’t look at this as an individual, personal thing,” Wiegandt said. “We’re in a pandemic. We’re looking to protect everyone.”

Various town employees, including Semple and Matt Underhill, the town’s information technology director, speculated that a town employee might die after being mandated to receive a vaccine. There is no evidence that anyone has died because of a covid vaccine.

Catherine Phinney, a member of the Board of Health, said she understands that people feel strongly about this issue.

“Don’t ever think that the only one affected if you die is you,” Phinney said. “Your family is left without a breadwinner, a parent, a mother, a child. If you don’t worry about getting the disease, if you get the disease, you better worry about the hospital, because it’s going to be something that will probably bankrupt you for the rest of your life.”

Tonya Johnson, a bus driver, said she is willing to continue following strict masking and cleaning protocols, but if she is mandated to receive the vaccine, she will quit. She said she has had a history of medical complications related to a vaccine she received as a child, and claimed that the vaccine is unproven and untested.

The vaccines were tested in clinical trials that included thousands of participants. The Pfizer vaccination has been fully approved by the FDA, and the Johnson & Johnson and Moderna vaccines have been given emergency use authorizations following clinical trials.

Fellow bus driver Marie Ferreira said that it seemed to her that breakthrough cases mean that the vaccines don’t work. That is incorrect — no vaccine is 100 percent effective at preventing infection.

“The reason they’re not working well is because everybody hasn’t been vaccinated,” Wiegandt explained. “If we get herd immunity, then you will see that we have less [breakthrough cases]. What’s happening is that the vaccines are 90% effective, so you’re going to have some breakthrough cases, that’s known.” 

Vaccinated people are less likely to develop severe symptoms, be hospitalized, or die from covid

Wiegandt noted that among unvaccinated people, the death rate due to covid is about two percent. For vaccinated people, that number might be closer to 0.02 percent. 

Despite the low risk of death, Wiegandt said that even vaccinated people should be careful, especially in an area like Wareham with a low vaccination rate. 

Wiegandt noted that there are medical exemptions related to the vaccine, but said that “it’s safer to be vaccinated than not to be vaccinated.”

There are many opportunities to get the covid vaccination, which is free of charge.