WHITMAN — Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman updated Selectmen on the effects of the Delta variant in the town, on Tuesday, Sept. 7, opening a discussion on whether mandatory vaccinations should be required of town employees.
Over the last 14 days an uptick in cases brought the positivity rate from 3.42 percent to above 4.79 percent — the first time since May the positivity rate has been over 4 percent, he reported. But the rate of vaccinations has also risen about 1 percent.
“We have certainly been seeing the impact, probably, of the Delta variant,” Heineman said. “On the positive side of things … we have had a little bit of an uptick from Aug. 24 to 31in the percent of those living in Whitman age 12 and above who are eligible to be vaccinated, who have decided to be vaccine.”
The increase is about 1 percent overall, but is higher in the age 12 to 15 age group.
The town has been following the advice of the state and local boards of health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) throughout the pandemic, Heineman said. The Whitman Board of Health has not met since Selectmen met last, but Heineman said the towns health inspector is keeping a close eye the situation, as well.
“It seems clear to me that both for public and private employers … its beginning to come to some sort of point where there’s an increasing number of employers who are requiring vaccination for their employees,” he said. “The Commonwealth has decided to implement that [mandate] for it’s employees, certainly the U.S. military and some municipalities. … I think that’s something for the board to consider,” he said.
Exceptions have been made in some locations for those with religious objections or medical issues that would be compromised by the vaccine.
While the Board of Health doesn’t require it, Heineman said it should be kept in mind.
“I think the maximum number of folks who are able to be vaccinated … seems to me that’s the way out of this pandemic,” he said.
“My feeling is we’ve been following the advice of the Board of Health and it seems to be working for the town,” said Vice Chairman Dan Salvucci, who chaired the meeting in the absence of Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski.
Selectman Brian Bezanson asked if there was a way to sense how many town employees have been vaccinated. Heineman said that, so far, it seems to be the subject of medical privacy.
“Anecdotally, a majority of employees are vaccinated,” Heineman said. “To give you an exact number, the only way would to be ask each and every employee if they are vaccinated.”
Bezanson said he was only concerned that, if a majority are vaccinated already, the town might be going down a road they don’t necessarily want to go down.
Fire Chief Timothy Clancy said the department has 47 houses under quarantine for COVID right now, with 55 positive cases.
“We don’t know if there’s anybody out there that hasn’t been tested,” Clancy said, citing the increased availability of tests and vaccines. “I have neighbors that won’t show up on that data sheet even though they have been vaccinated, because they’ve been vaccinated in Florida.”
Selectman Justin Evans, who is required to be vaccinated as a state employee, said a mandate should not be taken off the table as a possibility.
“I don’t consider it a burden, although I know some coworkers who are considering whether this is the end of their time with the state,” he said. “I don’t want to force anyone’s hand there, particularly in the town, but I’d like to pursue any opportunity to try to push this vaccination rate higher.”
Heineman reported that the FDA is expected to approve the Moderna vaccine soon. That is the vaccine the Department gave to residents to begin with.
Clancy said he is somewhat concerned with the specifics of the booster. Originally, it was to be just another shot, but now there is discussion about it being a percentage of the original Moderna dose. He is researching it further.
“We are moving forward,” he said. “We have a site selected and training. …As soon as we get the FDA’s OK, we will move forward.”
Selectmen also received an update from consultant Ann Donner on the town’s strategic plan as she reviewed the process via a PowerPoint presentation.
“It’s an activity that really sets high-level priorities, and an alignment of all departments throughout an organization throughout the town,” she said of the plan. “It’s about long-term planning. What it isn’t, is telling people how to do their jobs.”
The plan development is being done in three phases, the first fact-gathering phase now wrapping up, is the most time-consuming, phase two will be an October strategic planning retreat — open to the public — and the final phase, in November and December will be drafting a plan to review with stakeholders in an exercise session.
The process also identifies other things happening around the town that affects how business is done, such as COVID-19.
Phase 1 also focuses on the key areas on which the town will concentrate and the way every department fulfills its role.
“How do we know when we’re advancing the ball up the field — how we’re identifying progress in the short, medium and long-term,” she said. “Everything fits somewhere within the plan.”
The School Committee has also recently developed a strategic plan for the district.
Donner and Heineman have invited Whitman members of the School Committee to the retreat.
The retreat is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 9 or 23.
Selectman Randy LaMattina asked if the retreat could be conducted by Zoom, if a public health problem arises as a backup plan.
“My fear is something happens and this process comes to a stall again,” he said.