BOSTON — Some of the last vestiges of the COVID-19 emergency declaration will end in May when Gov. Maura Healey will lift the modified public health emergency and walk back a vaccine mandate for tens of thousands of executive branch workers.
The Healey administration announced Wednesday it will end the public health emergency status in Massachusetts — which in 2021 effectively took the place of an earlier COVID-19 state of emergency — on May 11, the same day a federal public health emergency ends.
That move will end six public health emergency orders, one of which requires Bay Staters to wear masks in some health care and congregate care settings. The other five public health orders now due to expire deal with health care workplaces and staffing, some of which Healey plans to tackle via separate legislation.
"Thanks to the hard work of our health care providers and communities, we've made important progress in the fight against COVID-19," Healey said in a statement. "We know that we have the tools to manage this virus — vaccines, masking, testing, getting treatments and staying home when sick — and we've reached the point where we can update our guidance to reflect where we are now."
She also praised her predecessor, Gov. Charlie Baker, saying he and his administration "saved countless lives by putting these important measures in place in a time of immense crisis."
Baker declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts due to COVID-19 on March 10, 2020. In May 2021, he declared a "modified" public health emergency that remained in place after the formal state of emergency's end on June 15, 2021, giving state public health officials greater flexibility to roll out testing, vaccination and response policies.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kate Walsh said Massachusetts is "in a very different place" compared to where it was three years ago when the pandemic upended public life and prompted widespread restrictions and shutdowns.
"While we will continue living with COVID-19, we can now incorporate the tools to manage this virus into our standing response to respiratory illness within our communities and health care system," Walsh said.
More than 84 percent of the Bay State's population completed a primary vaccine series to protect against COVID-19, and about 30 percent have received an updated bivalent booster, both among the highest rates in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
As of March 7, Massachusetts had 458 patients in hospitals with COVID-19, 152 of whom were hospitalized primarily for treatment of illness related to the virus. Sixty-one Bay Staters died from COVID in the seven-day span ending March 9, the Department of Public Health said.
On the same day the state public health emergency ends, Healey will rescind a Baker executive order that required executive branch workers to receive a primary vaccination series against COVID-19 or secure a medical or religious exemption, and her administration signaled it may work to bring back some employees who left because of the mandate.
The governor's office said Wednesday that the executive order "helped raise the percentage of fully vaccinated executive department employees from around 76 percent to over 99 percent." Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll called it "a successful tool for boosting vaccination rates and reducing the spread and severity of COVID-19 in Massachusetts."
"We're grateful to the state employees who did their part to keep themselves, their coworkers and their communities safe," Driscoll said. "We encourage Massachusetts residents to continue taking important prevention measures to keep our communities healthy, like getting boosted, masking and staying home when you're feeling sick."
COVID-19 vaccine mandates will remain in place for some state employees in "certain roles and settings" due to regulations from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, Healey's office said.
Baker's vaccine mandate proved controversial, triggering legal challenges from unions representing state troopers and correction officers. The vast majority of state workers complied, and some left their jobs — in December 2021, the Baker administration said nearly 1,000 of the 41,000-plus executive branch employees either resigned or were fired due to their noncompliance.
"We will work closely with the public employee unions to implement these changes and will be discussing reinstatement options for employees with their representatives," said Healey spokeswoman Karissa Hand. "Our top priority is maintaining safe, productive workplaces."
While she was attorney general, Healey also implemented a vaccine mandate for employees in her office. She defended Baker's policy for the executive branch, saying at the time that he was right to implement it and describing the requirement as "absolutely legal."
"For me, what it comes down to is making sure as a state we're doing everything possible to get people vaccinated to prevent future risk from the virus," Healey said in a GBH radio interview in August 2021.
Unions that fought Baker's vaccine mandate praised Healey for her plans to lift it.
Officials at the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union said some of their workers and other first responders spent the early months of the pandemic working in-person before the rollout of vaccine protections, then faced discipline including termination for refusing to get immunized.
Union President Dennis Martin called Baker's mandate a "destructive policy that ultimately effected [sic] the lives and families of dedicated state employees."
"The termination of state employees for refusing to get vaccinated was the lowest point of the Baker administration, and sent the wrong message to thousands of first responders," added MCOFU lobbyist and former Worcester County Sheriff Guy Glodis. "These men and women acted bravely and heroically during the height of the pandemic. It's refreshing to have a governor making decisions based on facts, figures and information, and not based on the political correctness of elitist intellectuals."
The State Police Association of Massachusetts, which has been pushing to reinstate troopers suspended for failing to comply with the mandate, said the executive order led to 20 of its members "either being terminated or suspended without pay due to their sincerely held religious beliefs that stop them from receiving a COVID-19 vaccination."
"This has been a long journey for our membership. We have been seeking the same treatment as other commonwealth employees and for our leaders in government to hear our voice," said SPAM President Patrick McNamara. "Today, the Healey-Driscoll Administration did just that with the announcement to rescind Executive Order 595. Our Association and our Executive Board are excited to get our members back to do what they do best, protecting the Commonwealth. Thanks once again to the Healey-Driscoll Administration for hearing our voice and being a true partner in this effort."
With an eye toward the May 11 shift, Healey said Wednesday she plans to file legislation to keep in place a trio of policies enshrined in the public health orders set to expire.
Her forthcoming bill would continue staffing flexibilities for out-of-hospital dialysis centers for another six months, aiming to give centers time to return to pre-COVID workforce levels, and authorize some non-Medication Administration Program certified staff to continue administering prepackaged medications in community settings for six more months.
The legislation would also permanently allow advanced life support-level ambulances to be staffed with a first responder driver and a single EMT provider rather than two certified EMTs.