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Nearly half of Philly’s firefighters and police have skipped COVID-19 vaccines, unions say

While city officials and unions are eager to see public safety workers vaccinated, they are hesitant about forcing the issue.

Philadelphia Fire Department EMS paramedics administered the Johnson & Johnson vaccine during a neighborhood clinic in West Oak Lane in March.
Philadelphia Fire Department EMS paramedics administered the Johnson & Johnson vaccine during a neighborhood clinic in West Oak Lane in March.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Nearly half of Philadelphia’s fire and police workers are unvaccinated despite being eligible to receive the shot for months, according to unions representing both groups.

Philadelphia Firefighters Local 22, which represents about 2,800 firefighters and EMTs, reported 51% of its members have been vaccinated. The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge Five reported 3,562 members have been vaccinated, more than half the force. The union did not offer any demographic breakdowns of that number and was not able to distinguish between officers and civilian employees.

Both the Philadelphia Fire Department and Police Department declined to confirm vaccination rates among employees, or rates of COVID-19 infections.

“Our members are people, they’re human beings, they have the same kind of concerns that everybody has,” said Adam Thiel, the city’s fire commissioner and director of emergency management. “That said, we’re hoping that more and more folks, not just in the Fire Department but in the entire city, take advantage of these safe and effective vaccines.”

Thiel noted firefighters wore protective gear when interacting with the public, including masks, that should prevent them from posing a risk to others even if they had not been vaccinated.

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The Police Department did not respond to questions about vaccination outreach, concerns about officer safety, or the risks unvaccinated officers could pose to the public.

Vaccination rates among public safety workers are only slightly above the city’s overall vaccination rate, about 47%, even though police and firefighters had more time during which they were eligible for vaccination than many Philadelphians.

The numbers of unvaccinated people put unions and department administrators in a difficult position, balancing the safety of personnel, and the possibility of them risking others’ safety, with the need to respect personal choice.

“It’s totally up to you and we’re not forcing you to get it,” said Mike Neilon, a spokesperson for the FOP. “For your added security, from a health standpoint, you should get it.”

Police, whose job requires close interaction with the public and coworkers, experienced significant exposure to the virus through the pandemic. In December, The Inquirer reported about half the department had been infected with COVID-19, which provides protection against the virus but not as robust as vaccination. As of December, four officers had died of the virus. The union did not have more current numbers on infections or deaths, Neilon said.

In Philadelphia, first responders including police and firefighters were in phase 1B, meaning they became eligible to receive the vaccine in January. EMTs and paramedics were eligible earlier and they have largely accepted the vaccine, said Chuck McQuilkin, the firefighters union’s vice president, which represents those workers too.

“Anybody at this point who’s not vaccinated for some reason doesn’t want to be vaccinated or is waiting to be vaccinated,” said McQuilkin.

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Philadelphia officials should consider mandating vaccination for public workers, said Carolyn Cannuscio, director of research at the Center for Public Health Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, especially those like police, firefighters, and EMTs who interact frequently with one another or with the public. She said first responders are “standard-bearers for the community.”

”In their day-to-day work, they do valiant things to protect human lives,” she said. “This is one potent, powerful protective force that our first responders and law enforcement officials should take to protect the communities they all signed up to protect.”

Another large government agency in the city, SEPTA, has employed an “aggressive outreach campaign” to encourage vaccination among its workers, offering a $100 incentive to fully vaccinated employees, spokesperson Andrew Busch said. Yet it is seeing a vaccination rate similar to the police and fire forces. He said about a third of SEPTA’s 9,000 employees have received the incentive, a figure that includes 39 SEPTA police officers out of about 230.

The agency believes the actual number of employees vaccinated is “significantly higher,” Busch said, likely closer to “at least half” of the SEPTA workforce. He said the agency gets from 100 to 300 new forms for the $100 incentive submitted each week.

Neilon said he didn’t know why officers chose not to get doses. McQuilkin said he thought messaging around the vaccines played a role. Two firefighters have died of COVID-19, he said, and his members largely don’t deny the virus’ seriousness or the vaccine’s efficacy. Rather, he said, public health messaging has led to a lack of urgency among firefighters.

“They’re confusing people to the point where, what’s the point?” he said. “Why should I get vaccinated if I still have to live the same way I’m living now?”

He would like public health experts to emphasize that in the vast majority of people, the vaccines not only stop infection and serious illness but also prevent transmission. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that a vaccinated person is less likely to transmit the virus even when carrying it, but that studies are ongoing. An April article from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health was more assertive, saying evidence increasingly pointed to the conclusion that “vaccinated individuals are not able to spread the virus.”

McQuilkin has tried not to be pushy with unvaccinated members and has emphasized the simple comforts vaccination could bring to the fire house. Just one person unvaccinated in a fire house requires everyone else there on overnight shifts, up to nine people, to stay masked.

“If that meant us being able to go in the fire house without having a mask on, just to bring life back to normal somewhat,” he said, “I would encourage it at least for that.”

Firefighters who haven’t gotten doses are putting themselves at risk in the field, too, he noted.

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In mid-April, the city partnered with CVS Health and Jefferson Health to operate vaccination clinics specifically for city workers, including first responders and sanitation workers. Both the Fire and Police Departments also hosted vaccination clinics, the unions said. McQuilkin emphasized he did not blame the department’s administration for the low vaccination rates, saying it made doses available and communicated the importance of getting vaccinated.

The country’s slowing vaccination rate has raised questions about whether employers could require workers to take the shots. But Mayor Jim Kenney in a news conference Tuesday said, “We can’t force people to accept the vaccine.”

“We encourage people every day, whether they’re our employees or everyday citizens,” he said. “We’re hoping that as many people in the public get vaccinated so the issue will become moot at some point in time.”

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health does not track how many city employees have been vaccinated, a spokesperson said, though the city does ask staff to report vaccinations voluntarily.

It is unclear whether employers can legally mandate vaccinations as long as the three vaccine brands available in the United States are permitted through an emergency-use authorization designation from the Food and Drug Administration, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. There are a few health-care employers that have mandated it, KFF reported, and one is being sued. There are mandates, though, for vaccines that the FDA has fully approved, a step that is expected for COVID-19 vaccines soon.

Vaccination rates for Pennsylvania State Police, whose troopers patrol some 85% of the state, are not publicly available, as the agency would not release the data.

A spokesperson, Cpl. Brent Miller, said in a statement that State Police conducted an optional, all-staff survey in April to gauge vaccine availability and participation, but he did not respond to follow-up questions from The Inquirer about the results of the survey. He said vaccination is not mandatory.

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Law enforcement officers became eligible for the vaccine statewide on March 31, weeks after the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, the union that represents 4,300 troopers, called on Gov. Tom Wolf to prioritize vaccinating State Police. The group said at the time that more than 700 troopers had been infected and “an outbreak could cripple our department.”

The association hasn’t tracked how many of its members have received the vaccine, the group said in a statement.

Penn’s Cannuscio said police brass should, if they haven’t already, roll up their sleeves and receive shots during a vaccination clinic or event at a police station. She said standard-setting from the top is a powerful tool to improve vaccination rates within organizations, especially those that have clear hierarchies like police departments.

“The chief of police, captains, people in leadership are so highly respected, and they set the tone,” she said. “It’s incumbent upon all leaders to establish what they see as the strongest possible community norms for prevention.”

Staff writer Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.