With many Los Angeles police officers and firefighters still unvaccinated, some officials and experts are concerned that they will spread the virus to vulnerable members of the population in the course of their jobs.
When the vaccines were first made available to the public, first responders were given priority access as well as incentives such as Airbnb gift cards, bicycles and cameras, as well as cash prizes just for participating in a 30-minute “Vaccination Education” training session.
However, despite the priority access and incentives, vaccination rates for those in public safety agencies in Los Angeles and California are far below the average vaccination rates for adults across the state.
According to the LA Times, roughly 72% of adult Californians and 64% of Los Angeles residents 16 and older have received at least one vaccine dose, whereas about 51% of city firefighters and 52% of LAPD officers have been partially vaccinated.
Moreover, less than 30% of L.A. County Sheriff’s Department staff members have received vaccine doses through employee clinics. The vaccination rate of employees at state prisons currently sits at around 54%, with certain facilities reporting very low vaccination rates. For instance, one site recorded just 24% of its staff as being fully vaccinated.
Experts say that there is a myriad of reasons for low vaccination rates among public safety workers that mirror the general public. Some individuals who have previously caught COVID-19 believe they are protected by naturally-developed antibodies, while others are skeptical due to political reasons or fears that the vaccine is dangerous or ineffective.
Experts worry that unvaccinated officers and firefighters pose threat to vulnerable communities and themselves
Regardless of the reasons for their decision, there is growing concern about whether unvaccinated first responders present a threat to public health safety.
Some officials say that the nature of first responders’ jobs, such as working in close spaces, jails, courthouses and with vulnerable residents, could be problematic for those who are unvaccinated, as they can either catch the disease themselves or spread it to others.
Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo expressed his concern about the matter. “As first responders, that’s a significant public health issue. It isn’t only a matter of their health, but others they come into contact with daily,” Acevedo said. “This is becoming a big discussion among the chiefs and health leaders.”
Arthur Caplain, the founding director of the division of medical ethics at New York University said getting vaccinated is not just for one’s own health but for others in the community.
“We often interact with people who are high-risk or maybe can’t get vaccinated because they have cancer or have immune system problems. We have to remember: We get vaccinated for others, too,” he said.
Police officers also interact on a daily basis with communities that have low vaccination rates, such as the homeless, mentally ill, young black and Latino communities in L.A.
County, as well as immigrants who fear that they will be deported if they show up to get a vaccine.
Prisoners are also largely unvaccinated, and are forced to interact with law enforcement officers in tight quarters every day.
Community leaders are concerned that the unvaccinated officers can become COVID spreaders to these communities if they do not wear masks and refuse to get vaccinated. So far, 2,700 LAPD personnel have gotten the coronavirus, and nine have died. In addition, over 17,000 state corrections staff members have been infected and 28 have died, while nearly 50,000 prisoners have come down with COVID and 224 have died. Some activists argue that staffers brought the virus in from the outside.
Then there is the concern that if unvaccinated officers get sick, they will not be able to perform their job due to illness and quarantine, thus leaving the public and taxpayers at risk. Edwin Ramirez, a community activist in Pacoima, said, “It’s a loss to the public when they’re out.”
Officials vow to increase voluntary vaccination before resorting to mandates
Some agencies are mulling over the idea of vaccine mandates, but are first working to increase vaccination rates through other means of persuasion and incentivization. For instance, the Los Angeles Fire Department offered cash prizes to fire stations where 100% of the staff got jabbed. As of last week, zero of the city’s 106 fire stations had qualified.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a national police advisory think tank, said he and many department chiefs are frustrated about the situation.
“I don’t for a minute dismiss the moral implications of decisions to get vaccinated versus not to get vaccinated,” Wexler said. “Do I think you are going to be safer if you get it? Yeah. Do I think there are implications for others? Absolutely.”
Wexler said many agencies have considered mandates for officers, but none have implemented them. Such mandates are highly controversial among public safety workers and their unions, despite public officials in education and healthcare being forced to get the vaccine.
Caplan said that departments should stress the importance to employees’ personal health and to the broader community to get them to voluntarily accept the vaccine before mandates are instituted.
“These folks make a living trying to help other people,” he said. “If we point out that they can maybe help other people by getting vaccinated, that will maybe get more pickup.”