Police officers, prison guards and airport-security workers are among the public-safety employees resistingvaccines, with showdowns over the issue in the works as deadlines to get the shots arrive.
Law enforcement officers were among the first front-line workers to be offered coronavirus vaccines, yet by most accounts their vaccination rates are below or about the same as figures for the public at large.
In Chicago, the union representing 13,000 police officers is advising members to ignore a mandate from Mayor Lori Lightfoot to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by Friday. If officers don't get vaccinated or agree to be tested twice a week at their own expense, the city says it'll suspend them without pay.
The city's stance had John Catanzara, head of Chicago's police union, warning that Chicago streets may be patrolled by only half its workforce this weekend.
"All I can tell you is, if we suspect the numbers are true, and we get a large number of our members to stand firm on their beliefs that this is an overreach, and they are not going to supply the information in the portal, or submit to testing, then it's safe to say the city of Chicago will have a police force at 50%, or less, for this weekend coming up," Catanzara told his members in a recent Youtube video.
Lightfoot, however, is not backing off her mandate, which applies to all city workers, including police officers. "The only way that we can maximize safety in our workforce is to get people vaccinated," Lightfoot told a news conference this week.
"It's just stunning to me, frankly, in light of the challenges his membership has had with deaths," said Lightfoot of Catanzara. She noted that the city buried four police officers last year, all of whom died from COVID-19. "We don't want to lose any more police officers," she added.
Cops lost to COVID-19
Chicago is not alone in losing cops to COVID. The virus killed more police officers nationwide last year than all other causes combined, according to data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
The hesitancy to get immunized persists even after the deaths of more than 460 law enforcement officers since the pandemic began, all from COVID-19 contracted on the job. Coronavirus was the most common cause of duty-related deaths in 2020 and 2021, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. That's more than four times the number of duty-related deaths from gunfire.
The Los Angeles police department has been a major source of vaccine resistance among the city's tens of thousands of workers, although the city's police chief last week reported nearly two-thirds, or 65%, of LAPD employees as vaccinated, according to the Los Angeles Daily News.
Up until mid-September, LAPD had pegged its vaccination rate at about 46%.
A probe by the Los Angeles Times into more than 2,500 coronavirus cases within public safety agencies in Los Angeles County determined that more than half came from police and fire departments, according to a local CBS affiliate.
Los Angeles city employees are required to be vaccinated by October 19, and L.A. county workers had faced an October 1 deadline.
Nearly 900 Los Angeles fire personnel, mostly firefighters, have signed onto a notice of intent to sue the city if they are terminated for not being vaccinated by Tuesday's deadline. That's roughly a quarter of the department's 3,700 employees.
And the L.A. County sheriff last week said he would. "I don't want to be in a position to lose 5%, 10% of my workforce overnight on a vaccine mandate," Sheriff Alex Villanueva said in a Facebook Live event.
Shortages in Seattle
Elsewhere on the West Coast, Seattle's police department is dispatching detectives and nonpatrol officers to handle emergency calls due to a shortage of patrol officers. The union representing Seattle police workers predicts staffing woes will worsen as city employees face an October 18 deadline to be vaccinated. About 200 of the 1,075 active police officers have not yet submitted their vaccine status, according to Fox News.
The issue is also flaring up on the East Coast, including in Massachusetts, where roughly 42,000 state workers face an October 17 deadline to be fully vaccinated or risk being fired.
Viewed as among the strictest in the U.S. as it does not allow workers to get regular tests in lieu of vaccination, Republican Governor Charlie Baker's mandate was welcomed by human service workers but challenged by others, including unions representing prison guards and state troopers.
A federal judge in Worcester is now considering a bid to postpone Baker's mandate by the union for 4,000 state prison guards. A similar legal challenge by the union representing 1,800 state troopers was rejected last month in Massachusetts Superior Court, according to CBS Boston.
Dozens of troopers plan to quit over the governor's edict, but just one has definitely said he'll do so, according to Michael Cherven, president of the State Police Association of Massachusetts. The union has reported 80% of its members are vaccinated.
The reluctance to get vaccinated extends to federal employees in charge of public safety.
The Transportation Security Administration says four-in-10 of its employees — including screeners — are not vaccinated against COVID-19 as a federal deadline looms. Civilian federal government workers must be fully vaccinated by November 22, the Monday before Thanksgiving, one of the busiest travel times of the year.
"About 60% of our workforce has been vaccinated; that number needs to go quit a bit higher over the next few weeks," TSA Administrator David Pekoske told CNN.