Many police officers spurn coronavirus vaccines as departments avoid mandates
By ISAAC STANLEY-BECKER | The Washington Post | Published: May 2, 2021
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Police officers were among the first front-line workers to gain priority access to coronavirus vaccines. But their vaccination rates are lower than or about the same as those of the general public, according to data made available by some of the nation's largest law enforcement agencies.
The reluctance of police to get the shots threatens not just their own health but the safety of people they're responsible for guarding, monitoring and patrolling, experts say.
At the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, 39% of employees have gotten at least one dose, officials said, compared to more than 50% of eligible adults nationwide. In Atlanta, 36% of sworn officers have been vaccinated. Twenty-eight percent of those employed by the Columbus Division of Police — Ohio's largest police department — report having received a shot.
"I think it's unacceptable," Joe Lombardo, the head of Las Vegas police and sheriff of Clark County, said of the demand for the shots within his force.
The numbers paint a troubling picture of policing and public health. Because officers have high rates of diabetes, heart disease and other conditions, their hesitancy puts them at greater risk of serious illness from the coronavirus while COVIDforce readiness, experts said. Police officers were more likely to die of COVID-19, the illness that can be caused by the novel coronavirus, last year than of all other causes combined, according to data compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
Police hesitancy also means officers may be vectors of spread to vulnerable people with whom they interact during traffic stops, calls for service and other high-contact encounters. That could thwart efforts to restore community trust in a moment of heightened scrutiny after last month's conviction of ex-officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd.
"Police touch people," said Sharona Hoffman, a professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University. "Imagine having a child in the car who's not vaccinated. People would want to know if a police officer coming to their window is protected."
Police ambivalence about immunization finds a parallel among other front-line workers. Fifty-two percent of health care workers surveyed by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation between Feb. 11 and March 7 said they had received at least one dose.
One solution is for departments to make vaccination compulsory, according to experts in bioethics and public health, just as some health care settings and institutions of higher education have begun doing.
But department leaders and union officials said in interviews that such requirements could backfire or lead to lengthy litigation. Of more than 40 major metropolitan police departments contacted by The Post, none had made vaccination compulsory for employees.
That reflects a belief among officers — and their unions — that getting a shot is a private decision.
"I hate to sound like I don't care, but I really don't," Vince Champion, the Atlanta-based Southeast region director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, said of low vaccination rates. "It's a personal decision. We fight [the virus] every day. We're out among every disease in the world."
Authorities in roughly half the departments, from Philadelphia to Houston to San Francisco, were not tracking how many of their officers were vaccinated. That baffled Chris Cosgriff, executive director of the Officer Down Memorial Page, which honors law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.
Commanders should know whether officers are vulnerable to "getting sick and potentially dying," he said. "It's a readiness issue."
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Hesitancy within police departments is rooted in some of the same concerns expressed by the general public, according to police chiefs, union officials and experts in policing and public health.
Officers have voiced unease about the novelty of the shots and the speed with which they were developed, along with confidence that they can avoid the virus with proper protective gear. The majority of police are men, who are less likely than women to be immunized.
Many officers also reject immunization because they think previous COVID-19 infections have given them immunity, said Sean Smoot, director and chief legal counsel of the Police Benevolent and Protective Association of Illinois. That assumption runs counter to federal health guidance, which indicates that recovered people should be vaccinated because the duration of post-infection protection is unknown.
Some of the differences in police uptake of the vaccine reflect disparities among the communities they serve. Hawaii, where 80% of officers in Honolulu have received at least one dose, has administered more doses per capita than all but four states, and the Democratic governor, David Ige, has moved forward with plans for certifications known as vaccine passports, a cousin of vaccine mandates.
A greater proportion of residents in Denver County, Colo., are vaccinated than in, for example, Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas, or Fulton County, Ga., which includes Atlanta.
Smaller cities report lower rates of police vaccination. Twenty percent of officers in Mobile, Ala., have been vaccinated, said the city's public safety director, Lawrence Battiste. Some may have gotten their shots without the help of the city, he said, and therefore have gone untracked. But many are young, he said, and think the vaccines may be linked to infertility, an idea spread on social media that experts say has no basis in fact.
Amid such concerns, a few police departments stand out for their success.
In Denver, the police chief joined the president of the city's police union in July to enroll in a clinical trial of Moderna's vaccine at UC Health, along with more than a dozen officers. The chief, Paul Pazen, received the placebo but got the real thing in the early days of the vaccine rollout in December, when police gained priority access along with other emergency workers.
Sixty-nine percent of Denver's Public Safety Department has been vaccinated, Pazen said, at clinics run at the city's crime lab and at a sheriff's department training facility. That's among the highest rates disclosed by departments contacted by The Post.
"That's not an accident," the chief said. By the time those vaccine clinics opened, he said, his officers had learned about mRNA — the technology behind the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines — and had seen a video of the union president discussing his experience in the trial. "I would do it again," the union president, Nick Rogers, says in the video, which was provided to The Post.
Pazen says too many departments waited to urge staffers to get immunized. "Other places are struggling," he said.
Some cities are turning to incentives to boost participation. The Phoenix Police Department is offering a one-time $75 vaccine safety award to employees who get protected. Nine-hundred-nineteen employees, out of 3,982 total, have submitted a completed vaccine card to receive the rewards, said a city spokesman, Dan Wilson.
Other places are using inducements of other kinds. To spur interest in the vaccines, Lombardo, the chief in Las Vegas, revoked a policy at the beginning of April that had treated all coronavirus infections as work-related. Now officers must use their own sick leave to quarantine and recuperate. But the order has had little effect, he said, because more than 30 employees have tested positive since.
Lombardo said he has also sought to make vaccination more accessible by offering shots in briefing rooms and jails. "I'm doing everything I can to make it readily available, but I hire from the human race, and sometimes people are just lazy."
Steve Grammas, a Las Vegas detective and president of the city's police union, dismissed the notion that laziness is the issue. Those who have refrained, he said, may simply be uninterested.
"It's a personal choice that everyone's going to make," he said.
Committed to that view of vaccination as a personal matter, officials in scores of large cities said they are not tracking vaccinations. "Because it's strictly voluntary, we prefer not to intrude in privacy issues," said Alvaro Zabaleta, a detective with the Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida.
Other departments have partial records. In Chicago, officers who received shots at department clinics, or who used a specific code to sign up as emergency workers beginning in January, number at least 4,000, out of 12,413 active officers, city officials said. But many may have gotten shots elsewhere.
The San Antonio Police Department stopped keeping count in late January, when eligibility expanded and officers began getting vaccinated on their own. At that point, 50% of officers had received shots, said Christopher Ramos, a department spokesman.
Jason Pappas, an officer in Columbus, said the department's numbers may skew low because law enforcement in Ohio only became eligible for the shots in March, months later than in neighboring states. That delay stirred anger and may now be causing officers to withhold their vaccination status, he said.
Limited data makes it impossible to know whether mandates are appropriate, said Noel Brewer, a professor of public health behavior at the University of North Carolina.
"Requirements are best put into place once the behavior is already relatively common," he said. "Otherwise you can get immediate blowback."
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The experience of the few law enforcement agencies requiring employees to be vaccinated illustrates why such decisions are often fraught.
Mandates issued in January for employees of the sheriff's office in Durham County, N.C., and emergency workers in Doña Ana County, N.M., prompted federal lawsuits contending that vaccines authorized for emergency use cannot be made a condition of employment.
The claims cite language from the Food and Drug Administration's fact sheet describing coronavirus immunization as a "choice," as well as assurances from federal health officials that "vaccines are not allowed to be mandatory." The complaint of a Durham County sheriff's deputy, who was dismissed after he refused to provide proof of vaccination, says he was confronted with "the Hobson's choice of either being forced to take an experimental, unapproved vaccine against his will, or being fired, stigmatized, and having his life upended."
Mandatory vaccination, especially for police, is politically charged. The dispute in Durham County gained notice in the right-wing media, where a Facebook page called "Thin Blue Line" posted a January article criticizing the requirement as "communism" in a group with more than 73,000 members titled "We Support Our Police."
Vaccine mandates probably would pass legal muster, according to specialists in employment law, providing that they adhere to guidance issued last year by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission outlining exceptions for disability and religious belief. The broad authority of states and localities to protect public welfare would encompass compulsory vaccination of police, said Catherine Ruckelshaus, legal director of the National Employment Law Project.
But most police leaders see the legal and union fights as minefields they'd rather avoid. "We have made a very deliberate decision not to mandate it for staff," said Joseph Chacon, chief of the Austin Police Department, who has refrained from questioning officers about their immunization status, saying they have "trepidation in thinking we might be trying to track that somehow, which we're not."
Pazen, the chief in Denver, said he fears the legal ramifications of a mandate and would "prefer to get voluntary compliance."
Vaccine policy has generated intense discussion within the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said Lombardo, the Las Vegas police official. The "decision point" that would trigger a mandate for his department, he said, is a rate of coronavirus infection that would leave his force without "sufficient employees to address calls for service."
"I haven't been put into that position yet," he said.
Some officers say talk of mandates is premature. More than half of the Los Angeles Police Department has received at least one dose, said Mark Cronin, a 27-year veteran of LAPD and a union official handling virus-related issues.
Most of the questions he fields are from officers asking how to decide among the three authorized vaccines, how to arrange their vaccination and how to plan for a booster shot, he said.
And for officers who refuse vaccination, Cronin's message is blunt. "I tell our members that you're an absolute fool if you don't get it."