The resurgence of COVID-19 this summer and the national debate over vaccine requirements have created a fraught situation for the nation’s first responders, who are dying in larger numbers but pushing back against mandates, reported The Associated Press.
In the first half of 2021, 71 law enforcement officials in the U.S. died from the virus — a small decrease compared to the 76 who died in the same time period in 2020, per data compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Last year, the total figure was 241 — making the virus the leading cause of law enforcement line-of-duty deaths.
Despite the deaths, police officers and other first responders are among those most hesitant to get the vaccine and their cases continue to grow. No national statistics show the vaccination rate for America’s entire population of first responders but individual police and fire departments across the country report figures far below the national rate of 74% of adults who have had at least one dose.
Frustrated city leaders are enacting mandates for their municipal employees — including police officers and firefighters — as the delta variant surges. The mandates’ consequences range from weekly testing to suspension to termination. It’s a stark contrast from the beginning of the vaccine rollout when first responders were prioritized for shots.
“It makes me sad that they don’t see it as another safety precaution,” Octavia Tokley said. “You wear masks, you wear bulletproof vests. You protect each other. That’s what you do, you protect and you serve.”
“This vaccine really is about not just protecting yourself but protecting your coworkers, your community, people who go to your church, people in your kids’ school,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, whose city requires all employees to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or face termination.
Unions across the country are fighting back. Shon Buford, president of San Francisco Firefighters Local 798, is urging city leaders to delay their Oct. 13 vaccinate-or-terminate deadline.
Twenty workers who did not disclose whether they had received a shot by a previous deadline may receive 10-day unpaid suspensions. One firefighter has sued San Francisco, which was the first major U.S. city to adopt a vaccine mandate for its workers. The overwhelming majority of the city’s workforce of 36,000 is vaccinated, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.
Buford, who is vaccinated, says he needs more time to educate his hesitant members, and he’s disappointed that San Francisco took such a harsh stance from the beginning. Firefighters like Salas have threatened to retire, and others say they will risk termination.
“To me, they deserve more than an ultimatum,” Buford said.
In Los Angeles, over 3,000 employees in the police department have been infected by the virus and the numbers continue to climb. Ten LAPD workers have died, as well as three spouses.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents rank-and-file officers, has proposed required weekly testing for cops— like the New York City Police Department — in lieu of the mandate signed by Mayor Eric Garcetti on Aug. 20 that makes vaccinations part of city workers’ job conditions.
LAPD Chief Michel Moore said 51% of the department has been vaccinated as of Aug. 31 and more than 100 personnel got their shots in the last week and a half.
In California’s state prisons, a federal judge could order all correctional employees and inmate firefighters to be vaccinated under a class-action lawsuit. In mid-July, 41% of correctional officers statewide had at least one dose of a vaccine, compared to 75% of inmates.
Officials fear a repeat of last summer’s outbreak at San Quentin State Prison north of San Francisco, which sickened 75% of the prison’s incarcerated population. Twenty-nine people, including a correctional officer, died.
“Every minute, every day, every week we delay, it’s putting our clients at greater and greater risk,” said Rita Lomio, a staff attorney at the nonprofit Prison Law Office, which is representing the state’s incarcerated people in the lawsuit.
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