Susan Silk came before the West Tisbury select board Wednesday evening with allegations that Up-Island Council on Aging staff, specifically at the Howes House, aren’t vaccinated. Silk told the board the alleged lack of vaccination has necessitated masks for all in the building. She argued that was detrimental to many seniors’ health and well-being.
The meeting, which was held in the West Tisbury Free Public Library, was the first in-person meeting the board has held since the dawn of the pandemic. Select board chair Skipper Manter opted to quash substantive debate on the subject, because the item was not on the agenda. It was lightly taken up, as an item that couldn’t have been reasonably anticipated by the chair. The subject was slated for the next select board meeting. Nevertheless, Silk made her case to the board.
Silk said she told health agent Omar Johnson that Howes House staff had not been vaccinated, and did not intend to be vaccinated. “He told me he’d have to talk to town counsel and get back to me,” she said. “He said it would take him a couple of days to get back to me.”
When Johnson finally got back to her, she said, he hadn’t contacted town counsel, and said the town doesn’t have a vaccination policy.
Johnson later confirmed the conversations with The Times. He said he consulted with the town administrator in lieu of town counsel, and learned vaccinations could be mandated but haven’t been. “That has not been adopted by the town,” he said.
Silk told the board the mask rule in the Howes House will cause seniors not to participate in Up-Island Council on Aging programs.
“Exercise and wearing a mask isn’t smart and isn’t safe,” she said. “And the rationale for playing mah jong and bridge is socializing, chatting, smiling. I’m sure that every service the center provides is trying to fulfill these same customer needs.”
In an email to Silk obtained by The Times, Up-Island Council on Aging staffer Diana Braillard wrote that most programs will restart July 6.
“We do have some restrictions due to the building space and size,” Braillard wrote. “In our main dining room, we are allowed 12 people, downstairs 10-12, and the sunroom, as you know, can fit 6-8. We are also requiring masks in the building, as we want to be safe with our reopening. As the summer progresses, we may be able to allow more folks and ease up on some requirements, but we will have to play that by ear. We are reaching out to be sure groups want to continue in their prepandemic time slots on our calendar.”
Silk later said she’s been part of a group of 13 women who have been playing mah jong at Chef Deon’s in Oak Bluffs, and may continue to do so. She said she took serious issue with the idea of unvaccinated staffers at Howes House, and accused staffers of abandoning their responsibility to seniors. “Where is your sense of responsibility to them, if it’s true?” she said. “They have a right not to be vaccinated, but I think they should be.”
Johnson said vaccination choices and policy are of issue across the country, and may be the subject of complex litigation in places like Texas.
Joyce Albertine, longtime director of the up-Island Council on Aging, said vaccination information is private, and declined to disclose anything about it.
“I can’t divulge anybody’s personal information,” Albrtine said. “There’s no mandate,” she said about staff vaccinations.
“If we’re going to learn anything about the pandemic,” Silk told The Times, “it’s stuff like this that we should be thinking about.”
In other business, following a brief joint session of the library trustees and the select board, both bodies unanimously appointed Emily Fischer as a library trustee.