NEW BEDFORD — The city is suspending its requirement that city employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to a testing regimen, after five consecutive weeks of declining cases.
Mayor Jon Mitchell directed the city’s Personnel Office on Monday morning to immediately stop enforcement and implementation of the policy. As a result, city workers will no longer be required to submit proof of vaccination. And those who had chosen the option of producing weekly negative test results will no longer be required to do so, said Mitchell’s spokesman Michael Lawrence.
COVID cases in New Bedford have fallen dramatically since early January, when the omicron variant spread throughout the region and across Massachusetts. Lawrence said the city hit its peak of daily cases on Jan. 7, when 562 cases were reported over the previous day. By comparison, the city saw an average of 23 cases per day during the past week, representing a 96% decline from the January peak.
Two weeks ago, New Bedford lifted its mask mandate for public areas of municipal buildings, and School Superintendent Thomas Anderson announced that masks will no longer be required in most school building settings, beginning March 7.
New Bedford’s employee vaccination and testing policy was first announced in August, but wasn’t implemented until Nov. 15, after negotiations with unions representing some 1,100 non-school municipal employees, Lawrence said.
The policy’s primary goal was to protect residents and staff, as well as set an example for public and private employers in Greater New Bedford. In total, 825 city employees subject to the policy were recorded as fully vaccinated — a rate of 74 percent, compared to New Bedford’s general population vaccination rate of about 57 percent.
More than 200 employees chose to comply through weekly testing, Lawrence said, noting that in many instances, the weekly tests revealed COVID infections that would have otherwise gone undiagnosed. As a result, COVID-positive employees were prevented from coming into work where they might have infected colleagues or residents using city services.
No city employees were terminated or issued disciplinary suspensions for non-compliance with the policy, the mayor’s office said. In some instances, employees who failed to supply timely testing results were denied entry to the workplace until test results were submitted. In these cases, employees had their accrued personal or vacation time reduced accordingly.
The city will continue to honor the employee benefits negotiated in agreements with the Police, Fire and AFSCME unions during 2021. The city reserves the right to reinstitute the vaccination and testing policy if a new COVID-related public health threat emerges.
City health officials will continue to focus on other aspects of the pandemic response, including the promotion of vaccinations and boosters, which continue to be highly effective at preventing severe COVID outcomes. The Health Department will also continue to monitor transmission risk and the emergence of new variants that could require additional safeguards, Lawrence said.
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