MIDDLETON — Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger is implementing a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for all employees, as well as people working inside the jail for other entities and volunteers.
The order announced Tuesday will take effect Jan. 4.
A spokeswoman for the sheriff, who runs the Middleton Jail and several other facilities around the county, said the Essex County Correctional Officers Association is challenging the order with the state Labor Relations Board.
Coppinger defended the order, which is modeled after one that Gov. Charlie Baker has imposed on state employees and which has survived court challenges.
The move comes just weeks after a spike in COVID-19 cases at the facility among both prisoners and people working there either as employees, including correctional officers, or vendors who work for private companies that provide services at the facility. As of Tuesday, there were 31 cases of COVID-19 among employees, vendors and volunteers, spokeswoman Gretchen Grosky said.
As of Tuesday, 72% of jail employees have provided proof of vaccination.
Unless granted an exemption for medical or religious reasons, employees will have to show proof by Jan. 4.
Coppinger said the vaccine "is the most effective tool we have to ensure the health and safety of all within our facilities, which is why this department will be moving ahead with a vaccination mandate."
There are an average of 1,100 people held in custody at the jail, one of the largest jail populations in the state.
"We are a congregate care setting, and as such, we must make sure everyone has the vaccination to protect not only themselves and fellow staff, but to also protect every person that we provide care and custody for."
Coppinger said in a prepared statement that COVID-19's delta variant has been shown to spread more quickly and cause more infections.
"The greatest risk of transmission is among unvaccinated people who are much more likely to get infected, and therefore transmit the virus," he said.
A message left for the Essex County Correctional Officers Association was not immediately returned on Tuesday morning.
Despite the coming legal challenge, Coppinger praised his employees for showing "great courage and commitment throughout this pandemic" and for their work keeping the facilities running.