Northampton health board eyes vax mandates for schools, senior center

  • FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2021, file photo, a certified medical assistant prepares doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. With more than 40 million doses of coronavirus vaccines available, U.S. health authorities said they're confident both seniors and other vulnerable Americans seeking booster shots and parents anticipating approval of initial shots for young children will have easy access. (AP Photo/John Locher, File) John Locher

Staff Writer
Published: 10/21/2021 9:45:55 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Board of Health members curious about requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for eligible public school students heard about the legal implications from city solicitor Alan Seewald on Thursday night.

Seewald said state law Chapter 76 Section 15 lists the vaccinations that are required for school enrollment — currently diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio and measles — and only the state Department of Public Health has the authority to add new mandates to that list.

“The state is the superior sovereign,” Seewald said, but he stressed that the law only applies to enrollment, and not to other school-related purposes like participation in extracurricular activities.

Seewald answered questions from board members about the Amherst Regional School District’s decision to proceed with a mandate for enrollment despite the apparent illegality. He said Northampton would be on more solid legal ground if it followed Cambridge’s example by imposing a vaccine mandate only for extracurricular activities.

“The Board of Health tends to have broad powers in the city … and I believe the Board of Health has this authority,” Seewald said. “It’s clear to me … that no department of the city could impose a vaccine mandate for eligibility for enrollment.”

Board of Health member Joanne Levin said the board should wait to act until after hearing the opinions of School Committee members, and the board ultimately decided to send the School Committee a letter seeking members’ input about a mandate that applies to extracurricular activities.

Public Health Director Merridith O’Leary said that Mayor David Narkewicz, as chairman of the School Committee, requested an enrollment vaccination mandate from the state health department for students 16 and older. She said the Amherst public health director told her that their mandate is popular in town, but that people from out of state are calling to complain about it.

Narkewicz is also crafting an executive order requiring vaccinations for municipal employees, pending negotiations with seven unions, O’Leary said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hampshire County is experiencing a “substantial” level of community transmission of COVID-19, along with Franklin and Norfolk counties. Every other county in Massachusetts is at a higher level of community transmission.

Between Oct. 13-20, there were 116 cases identified in Hampshire County, and no deaths. About 59% of eligible people are fully vaccinated.

Senior Center mandate

During the meeting’s public comment section, Ward 2 City Councilor Karen Foster said some of her constituents were seeking a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for entering the Senior Center.

“I understand there’s a mask mandate, and the Senior Center has done some incredible work to do virtual programming,” Foster said, but a vaccine mandate would make “those facing incredible isolation” feel safer. “The data might not necessarily bear that out, in a ‘hard numbers’ kind of way,” she said, but the center should be “fully accessible to all community members who are qualified to use it.”

The CDC reports that 87.2% of people in Hampshire County age 65 and over are fully vaccinated, and 99.1% have received at least one dose.

Gary Drimmer said his wife is immunocompromised, like many seniors, and encouraged a vaccine mandate, as well. He asked for a mandate to be added to the next meeting agenda.

“Would you eat indoors, in a relatively small room, with seniors if you did not know everyone was vaccinated?” Drimmer said. “Would you play a flute in a room where everybody could be unvaccinated? You are unmasked, you are exposed, and you could be exposing everyone else.”

Francine Deutsch said she is “a relatively healthy 73-year-old, but I would never go into the Senior Center without a vaccine mandate,” and Marcia Holden said a mandate “would make me so proud of Northampton.”

Seewald said that a mandate covering the Senior Center, but not other buildings in the city, would be legal “as long as there’s a rational basis for picking one and not the other. It’s completely rational to pick the Senior Center.”

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.


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