Vaccine standoff between town, seniors

Masks a go, vaccines a no at Howes House.

Seniors and the West Tisbury select board are at odds over the necessity of a vaccine mandate. -Rich Saltzberg

Up-Island seniors and the West Tisbury select board found themselves at odds at a Wednesday Zoom meeting over the necessity of a vaccine mandate for Howes House staff. 

Several seniors who use Up-Island Council on Aging services at the Howes House insisted staff must be vaccinated. The select board didn’t agree. The board voted unanimously to require masks in publicly accessible town buildings, including Howes House, but declined to bring the subject of vaccines to a vote. 

The mask vote comes after West Tisbury resident Susan Silk came before the board June 16 at the West Tisbury Free Public Library to allege some Howes House staff may not be vaccinated, and that triggered burdensome mask use by seniors.

On Wednesday, select board chair Skipper Manter made it clear that leadership at the up-Island Council on Aging cannot establish a vaccine mandate, that such a mandate was the purview of the select board and the board of health. 

West Tisbury health agent Omar Johnson told the board that the board of health recently voiced unanimous opposition to a vaccine mandate for the up-Island Council on Aging and Howes House. Johnson said it was “strongly advised,” however, that people wear masks at Howes House. 

“I just want to be sure for the benefit of everybody who was good enough to come to the meeting that you are requiring seniors who have been vaccinated, and can prove it, and come to Howes House for exercise two, three, four times a week, to actually be wearing a mask while they’re exercising,” Silk said. “I want to be sure that we’re very clear that that’s what your mandate is going to be requiring.” 

Silk said she hoped the town health department would agree that such a mandate places seniors “at risk.” 

Johnson said the board of health discussed the notion of being “flexible” about where exercise classes are held — specifically holding them outside, where masks wouldn’t be required. 

“So there are things that we can do to make these individuals safe,” Johnson said. “But we are strongly, strongly encouraging, advising that masks be worn indoors.”

“Don’t you think you are just making it more difficult to have to start scheduling classes outdoors, and God knows where, when you could simply mandate everybody to be vaccinated, period?” West Tisbury resident Cathy Minkiewicz asked. 

Manter said the town can’t mandate “everybody,” and pointed out the mask rule applies to all town buildings, not just Howes House. 

Minkiewicz countered that the board could mandate all town employees be vaccinated.

“We’re following the advice of the board of health and the health agent — what we’ve been doing ever since the pandemic began,” Manter said.

Select board member Cynthia Mitchell, who is CEO of Island Healthcare, said Island Healthcare “doesn’t require that our employees be vaccinated,” but that employees are “strongly, strongly” encouraged to get vaccinated. 

West Tisbury resident Bea Phear told the board she thought town employees should be vaccinated, and “can work from home if they don’t want to comply with that, or they can choose to work elsewhere.”

Phear described a vaccine mandate for town employees as a “reasonable” mandate. “I personally will not go into the senior center [Howes House] unless you establish a mandate,” she said.

The board wasn’t able to muster a motion on a vaccine mandate. 

Minkiewicz asked if supporters of a vaccine mandate for town employees could bring the issue to a town meeting. Manter said voters could petition to do so.

In other business, Mitchell expressed a wish to receive a Vineyard Trust update on the progress of the Alley’s General Store transition. “I think we should request their presence,” Mitchell said. “I mean, we are now in the high season, and the place is shuttered.”

Town administrator Jennifer Rand said she already reached out to Vineyard Trust because she had concerns akin to Mitchell’s. “The answer I got back was, ‘We plan to open as soon as possible,’ but that wasn’t a clear answer.” Rand told a Vineyard Trust representative to visit the select board “as soon as possible,” because the trust’s response concerning “the centerpiece of our town” was insufficient.

Manter suggested the Vineyard Trust acting directo, Sally Rorer, come before the board next week. Rand said she’ll work to try to make that happen. Vineyard Trust, which manages several historic properties, including Alley’s General Store, is the subject of a police probe into grant application irregularities. Vineyard Trust president and CEO Funi Burdick resigned shortly after The Times revealed altered paperwork for a taxpayer-funded project. Rorer has taken over the role of president and CEO in the wake of Burdick’s departure. 


  1. Imagine a “health” agent who suggests that being flexible means asking old people to exercize outside in humid, 95 degree weather. This, so that the old folks don’t have to suffer through exercising while wearing a mask indoors where it’s air conditioned because the staff does not want to be asked about their vax status. It’s not rocket science. If you want to work around old people, get vaccinated. If you don’t want to get vaccinated, don’t work around old people, many of whom can’t wear a mask. The vaccine is much better protection from covid than masks, anyway. Isn’t it amazing what selfish people will do and say to maintain their incredible selfishness and ignorance and not make the damn vaccine a requirement to work around old people? Who pays the health agent’s salary at over $65K a year (from a couple years back) anyway?

    Massachusetts Employers
    Town of West Tisbury
    Health Agent
    Johnson Omar
    Johnson Omar
    Health Agent
    Town of West Tisbury

    Johnson Omar Overview
    Johnson Omar in 2019 was employed in Town of West Tisbury and had annual salary of $65,672 according to public records. This salary is 235 percent higher than average and 1,553 percent higher than median salary in Town of West Tisbury.

    And yeah, open Alley’s!

    • “This salary is 235 percent higher than average and 1,553 percent higher than median salary in Town of West Tisbury.”

      Unnecessarily inflammatory, extremely misleading and wildly inaccurate.

      Median income for a single person in Dukes County in 2020 was $73,400 per HUD and Dukes County Regional Housing Authority which tracks income annually. And there’s a difference between median and average, so the quote uses non-comparable stats.

      And it’s mostly irrelevant.

      • I failed to use quotation marks or cite the government salaries website. I did think the source was obvious (but clearly, I was wrong) from the webpage headings above the paragraph you object to:

        Massachusetts Employers
        Town of West Tisbury
        Health Agent
        Johnson Omar
        Johnson Omar Overview

        Anyway, here’s the para again with the proper quotes cited from GovSalaries:
        “Johnson Omar in 2019 was employed in Town of West Tisbury and had annual salary of $65,672 according to public records. This salary is 235 percent higher than average and 1,553 percent higher than median salary in Town of West Tisbury.”

        If you don’t like what the numbers say, take it up with the government website.

        A health agent who doesn’t responsibly care about the health of all the town’s citizens is entirely relevant and, therefore, so is his salary.

        Here is the link to the quoted source, which I should have included the first time:

        • Jackie– I think your comments about Mr. Jonson’s salary are not helpful to the larger issue.
          I don’t really care how much he is paid( well somewhat)
          But his salary is not the issue—
          The issue is whether or not he cares about the safety of the citizens he is tasked with protecting. Clearly, he does not with regard to covid.
          your comment about Omar’s financial compensation is akin to the trump supporters crying about Hunter Biden’s compensation.
          Don’t go there– focus on the competency — your focus on his pay distracts from his incompetency, and gives the other side an opportunity to criticize you.

          • Don, resident voters and taxpayers can indeed care a lot about the salaries of incompetent government employees.

          • Also, Don, another commenter here objected to my salary post as irrelevant, and he and I are on the same “side” in many matters, as are you and I. I don’t understand why a taxpayer would not object to the salary of a Massachusetts town government agent of health who does not do the job that I believe taxpayers pay him 65k to do. Maybe I am wrong and the health agent’s salary is not funded by west tis voters’ tax dollars? By the way, did you like paying for Trump’s salary? The majority of Americans did not like the way he performed his job, so we did what our democracy allows us to do–impeached him and voted him out. We now pay Joe Biden’s salary, for which I am quite happy to do. I’d rather the good citizens of West Tis get their tax dollars’ worth and get a health agent who is in fact an agent of health.

          • This reply to both of you:
            Mr. Johnson is paid by West Tisbury. My “wildly inaccurate” comment should said “wildly misleading”. Thanks for the link; it simply does some arithmetic to come up with information that is essentially useless. So yes, I take issue with the site. The salary is about right (higher now), but since a majority of the town employees they counted are part time or seasonal and a few might quit soon after hire, their lower incomes skew the average and median figures so much, they are meaningless. I pointedly omitted comment on the issue itself but wanted to “correct” the record. (As my letter to the Select Board noted, I think mandatory vaccinations for UICOA make sense).
            One other thing for what it’s worth – The Up-Island Council on Aging itself is paid for directly by WT, but partially reimbursed by the other up-island towns.

    • Lol. I didn’t have to look at “” to know that these figures are ridiculous. “. . . 235 percent higher than average and 1,553 percent higher than median salary in Town of West Tisbury”? Are you serious? Jackie, do you know how percentages work? I’m taking “235 percent higher than average” to mean “235% of average.” That would mean that it’s almost two and a half times the average. Doing a quick calculation, I get that the average salary in West Tisbury is a shade under $28K. Sorry, I think that’s a little low for 2021. But the real kicker is “1,553% of the median,” if that’s what the website means: that would make the median salary in town $4,228.72. Seriously?

      I got curious, so I looked up “Town of West Tisbury” on I believe this is what they were using for their comparisons: All I have to do is flip through a recent town report to realize that these figures are off the wall. (The median figure $3,972 for 2019 would be low even for a *monthly* salary.) Too bad you didn’t do likewise.

      • Susanna, why bother asking, as you did, “what is going on here, mandates aside” if you’re going to miss the point and shoot a messenger who has already been corrected for her error? Those comparison numbers after the correct 2019 salary is given are not up to scrutiny. And, my bad, I did not scrutinize them. I should have. But Mr Ruskin did and the point was made. What’s your point?

        I agree that the salary-comparison part of the paragraph I quoted was entirely unneccessary, as well as not standing up to scrutiny.

        Why the salary matters to voters is the point. Is there any salary amount, whether or not it is more or less than some else’s, that is ok when a person is not doing his job? And as Mr Ruskin pointed out, the health agent’s salary is higher now. He also pointed out why those government numbers may be skewed and “off the wall”.

        Are you okay with paying a health agent not to be an agent of health? That’s the point. And no, I don’t particularly know how percentages work, which is why I quoted the entire paragraph, including the irrelevant part, giving ammunition to messenger shooters who happen to be on the same side as I am in this matter! How weird is that?

        • I find your statement about “shoot the messenger” quite ironic considering what you are doing to Mr. Johnson. I was not at the meeting, but the article clearly states that this was a unanimous decision by the BOARD of Health.

          Which means, that as the health agent, what Mr. Johnson is doing is 100% his job. He is carrying out the decisions that were made by the BOARD and bringing THEIR message to the public.

          What you are doing is passing off misleading information and attacking a man for doing his job.

          As far as “How weird is that?” May I suggest that if you don’t want to be corrected for spreading bad information, that you do a little more than just give a cursury glance at the validity and relevance of your “research”. I personally find it quite refreshing that just because someone agrees with you on a topic, doesn’t mean they are going to let you mislead the rest of us or attack a person for doing their job.

          Don’t shoot the messenger? Indeed!!

          • I agree I should not have quoted the irrelevant information. How many ways and how often would you like me to repeat that?

            How about the relevant information of a health agent making recommendations that impact the health of the community, elders in this case?

            Mr Johnson is quoted in the article. His notion of being “flexible” is not in the interest of the health of the elderly using Howes House. Exercising with a mask on is not a good idea for elderly. Neither is exercising outdoors in heat and humidity. A health agent should know that. Maybe if you weren’t so busy piling on, you would not have missed that the first time I wrote it.

          • Also, Ms West, why doesn’t the salaried health agent recommend to the board mandated vaccines for staff at Howes House? How is not recommending this important health measure doing his job? Please explain.

        • Shge gets the numbers all wrong and then attacks the person who corrects her. Oy Gevalt.

        • Ms. Mendez-Diaz it seems that most of the information you are sharing is faulty or made up. This is why people feel compelled to correct you.
          This is then met with more misinformation, vitriol and crys of being “piled on” or “shooting the messenger”. These crys may accurately be the case if Mr. Johnson was saying them, but they certainly aren’t the case for you. If you don’t want people to correct the misinformation you are spreading, it’s simple, just stop spreading more of it.

          The article actually states that Mr. Johnson said the BOARD discussed the idea of being flexible. He did not say it was his idea.

          Please, tell me how you know what Mr. Johnson did or did not recommend to the BOH? Were you at the BOH meetings? Or are you making that up?

          How do you know that the Howe’s House staff isn’t already fully vaccinated? A rumor? Those who care for our elderly are the most amazing people. I trust that they are making the best and safest decisions for the health and safety of both staff and guests. As are the BOH and the BOS.

          As far as the appropriateness of mask wearing by vaccinated seniors goes, vaccines are not infallible. Vaccinated people can and do still die from COVID. Especially the elderly. I would recommend you look at the new data coming out of the UK. The Delta variant is predominent there and gaining ground here. As of a 7/2/21 WSJ article, 43% of the deaths in the UK from this variant were in FULLY vaccinated people OVER the age of 50. While it seems the vaccines are working very well at protecting against death from this variant in the younger population, as no fully vaccinated person under 50 has yet to die from delta there, the older population is still very much at risk. So yes, I think the BOH recommending that this at risk population wear masks while indoors with non-household members is appropriate.

          • So, you’re against mandated vaccinations for Howes House staff who work around elderly?

            Speaking of misinformation, you spelled my name incorrectly.

        • Ms. Mendez-Diez you are correct. I did misspell your name. I apologize. I know how annoying that can be.

          I will answer your questions even though you have not extended me the same courtesy. However, my main issue with your comments is not related to the topic of vaccination. It is related to your spreading of misinformation and using it to attack people. This is the MVTimes, not Fox News.

          Do I believe all people who work around the elderly should be vaccinated? Absolutely, yes.

          Do I believe vaccines should be mandated is a more complicated question. I firmly believe in body sovereignty. Whether I agree with a persons decision I have no right to tell them what to do with their body. Principles being often easier to have than to live by in times like these, we are now constantly in situations where we must make difficult decisions that affect those around us. Mandating someone make a specific decisions regarding their own body is a slippery slope and should never be taken lightly. If you want to mandate vaccinations you need to have a better reason than the one you’ve given, which is “I don’t want to wear a mask”. Especially when there is a mask mandate for all Town buildings and you have to wear one regardless of a mandate for a vaccine.

          Lastly, this all appears to have started with a rumor. I truly believe the Howe’s house staff is fully vaccinated and if they aren’t it’s for a protected religious or medical exemption, not a philosophical reason. As that information is privileged you have no right to it and should not be told. So, is a mandate going to make you any safer? or just provide you with a false sense of security?

          • Ms West you dont want to get on Jackie’s bad side since she will relentlessly attack anyone who disagrees with her and has for years. You boxed her in articulately and she doesnt like it. Your comments Ms. West are principled but throwing out ”Fox News” is not and is a non sequitor and superflous.

          • Ms. West, the issue is requiring covid vaccines for staff at Howes House. What anyone “truly” believes is meaningless during a pandemic. There are anti-vaxers who truly believe Trump won the election and that they don’t need a vaccine. If 100% of staff at Howes House had already been vaccinated, we’d not be having this conversation. People who have done their civic duty are proud and happy to share their vaccine status. Did you ever hear anyone brag or even admit that they didn’t vote?

            It remains unconscionable not to require Covid vaccines for all staff at Howes House. This is what matters.

            Personal swipes aside, anything less than a vaccine mandate for HH staff is a hollow excuse for poor job performance, selfishness, and irresponsibility.

  2. You can request that people be vaccinated but you cannot ask if they have been and you can not mandate. There is a differnce between asking if and requesting and or mandating. Important differences that some dont want to acknowledge. We dont ask people about their private health issues.

    • Andrew– where do we draw a line ?
      Let’s say an employee comes into the Howes house and is showing all the symptoms of a covid infection, flush with fever, coughing, sneezing, a runny nose, etc,.
      Can the director ask if they are feeling well ? This is a question about a medical issue — Can the director “ask” them to go home ?
      Since we can already assume that anyone who is not vaccinated is pretty stubborn, and values their “freedom” over other peoples lives, they may refuse to go home. They have the “freedom” to work after all. What then ?
      Should the people who come there to exercise simply give up their freedom, go home and hide in their basement for the next year, as some suggest ?
      If this scenario sounds far fetched to you, consider this; covid can be transmitted by asymptomatic people. Should we only ask people who are symptomatic about their “medical condition” ? Can we ask ?
      The point is that an unvaccinated person is dangerous. Symptomatic or not.
      Since someone recently compared this issue to birth control, is it appropriate to ask an obviously pregnant woman when she is due ?
      I ask again– Where do we draw the line ?

      • Don, ENGELMAN is wrong, anyway. People, including employ, can and do ask for proof of vaccination to attend or participate in various activities. For instance, many colleges, more than 200, are now requiring covid vaccines for in person attendance. ENGELMAN doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

        • Jackie someone isnt speaking good English. Perhaps me. ”mandate” ”A judicial command, order, or precept, written or oral, from a court; a direction that a court has the authority to give and an individual is bound to obey”. You cannot mandate or force one to get a vaccination. You cannot force me to get on an airplane or on a hot air ballon or to go swimming. There is a consequence if I dont but you cant force me. I am never wrong Jackie.

          • There was a typo in my comment. The sentence should have read: People, including employers, can and do ask for proof of vaccination to attend or participate in various activities.
            Mandating vaccinations is still generally legal, (see link below) giving people a choice: either be responsible, or else take responsibility for their poor choice and find somewhere else to spread disease. So, ENGELMAN, you’re still wrong.

      • Mr Keller you still dont get it do you? In the example you gave, the leadership at Howes House simply says you cant come in, you look sick. Period. That is not asking about health issues and it isnt mandating a vaccination. It is simply saying you aint welcome here buddy. Come back when you are well. No requirement that the person has to be allowed to come in. If I go to a Dermatology appointment and I am cougning and wheezing and sneezing they can deny me entrance.

        • Andrew– I don’t see where that is the case. Your comment above puts a priority on medical privacy.. ” We dont ask people about their private health issues.” you said —
          You deliberately miss my point that ignorant selfish asymptomatic people can be charged with reckless endangerment, or if someone gets a high end lawyer, a possible manslaughter charge due to negligence by our health care officials
          Mr Johnson should look very carefully at this — He, and the town could very well be held responsible if anyone contracted covid while at the Howes house.

    • 2/20/1905
      U.S. Supreme Court Addresses Vaccination:
      The U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Jacobson v. Massachusetts upheld the constitutionality of mandatory smallpox vaccination programs to preserve the public health.

      Andrew, was the Supreme Court wrong in Jacobson v. Massachusetts?

      • Mr Hess, in Jacobsen vs Massachusetts the supreme court acknowledged that there would be exceptions in which it would be cruel and unhumane to vaccinate and left open what those exceptions would be. What are you going to do–handcuff a person and vaccinate him by hiding behind Jacobsen vs MA. I dont think so. They also did so while thinking the vaccine would not be enough to protect one from Small Pox so there was some hysteria in the public domain. This entire episode has been full of misinformation and believeing that mask can protect from virus is like believing a typhoon wont pentrate a screen door.

        • Andy– good to see that you are finally coming around to realizing there was a lot of misinformation surrounding this.
          I agree– believing that children can’t get this and pass it on is like believing drinking bleach will cure you.

        • A mask does not 100% prevent the spread of virus but it certainly does reduce the risk of spreading airborne virus particles. You are always spreading misinformation, especially when it comes to science and logic.

  3. The absurdity of not requiring the COVID vaccine for employees of the Howes House is mind boggling. More ludicrous is the fact that anyone working around seniors or in the public domain is refusing the vaccine. Its selfish and ignorant beyond belief. We’ve sunk to such gloriously stupid depths in this country.

  4. Mr Johnson. Your job is to protect the health of our citizens.
    Regardless of what decision is made , you are not advocating for the health of the people who use this facility.
    Do YOUR job and let someone else do their job to advocate for privacy or defend the rights of the ignorant and /or selfish.

  5. Mandates aside, what’s really going on here? If someone’s resisting vaccination for health reasons, OK, but in that case why aren’t they working from home? Ditto if their reasons are suspect. Either way they’re entitled to make their own decisions, but are they really entitled to impose the consequences on the rest of us? (Fwiw, I’m an officer in an organization that in normal times meets at the Howes House. Since March 2020, we’ve been meeting via Zoom. I’m fine with forgoing in-person meetings for public-health reasons. I am less fine with forgoing in-person meetings because one or more persons refuse to get vaccinated.)

  6. I would suggest that this is an issue for the elected Board of Health, not only Omar Johnson. That would be Tim Barnett, Erik Lowe and Jessica Miller. Mr. Barnett was re-elected on April 15th, Mr. Lowe in 2020 and Ms. Miller in 2019. None of these elections were contested. If folks do not like the Board, they should consider running in the next election. Does anyone know when the next public meeting of the BOH is? There is nothing on the town calendar.

  7. The person who is putting seniors at risk here is the one demanding that the mask mandate at the UICOA be lifted. This whole argument is about masking, not vaccination. The woman objecting to the indoor mask policy admitted herself in a letter to the editor that she’d heard a rumor that some employees were not vaccinated, no actual evidence in play. She made a public stink about a rumor because she objects to the mask mandate.

    Even if all UICOA employees are vaccinated, it is irresponsible to lift the mask mandate. People with certain medical conditions, taking certain drugs, are far more likely to have questionable post-vaccine immunity and remain at risk to Covid. And seniors are over represented in that group. The best way to keep vulnerable people safe in indoor public settings is to require all to wear masks.

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