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Philly needs a stricter vaccine mandate for city employees | Editorial

It would be regrettable for anyone to leave city employment over a mandate — but the greater calamity would be to lose any more public servants to this pandemic.

Now is the right time for Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole to push for a firmer vaccine mandate.
Now is the right time for Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole to push for a firmer vaccine mandate.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

They planned for a “mass exodus.”

Those were the words used to describe senior officials’ fears ahead of New York City’s deadline for all employees to provide proof of their vaccination status. Hundreds of firefighters and police officers chanting “The people will not comply” went so far as to block traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, a move that rankled many criminal justice reform activists, who had faced tear gas and rubber bullets in Philadelphia while marching on the Vine Street Expressway in spring 2020. Yet when the dust settled, only 34 officers and 40 civilians were placed on unpaid leave by the New York Police Department for noncompliance. The department reached a vaccination rate of 85% — which some scientists believe is an important benchmark for herd immunity — with the remainder applying for medical and religious exemptions.

In our own state, both Pittsburgh and Allegheny County have announced vaccine mandates for all of their employees. It’s crucial that Philadelphia follow their lead by creating and enforcing a stricter vaccine mandate for anyone employed by the city, including police officers, firefighters, and workers with the Streets Department.

Mandate opponents have complained that these efforts are coercive, and that punishments are “arbitrary and capricious.” The head of Chicago’s police union called Mayor Lori Lightfoot “a dictator” and urged noncompliance for his members.

» READ MORE: City extends deadline for healthcare and higher education worker vaccinations

Here at home, John McNesby, president of Philadelphia’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, is himself vaccinated but calls getting the shot “a personal choice” and insists officers shouldn’t be forced to take it. He’s wrong.

In August, Mayor Jim Kenney and Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole announced what they called a vaccine mandate for city employees. Unfortunately, calling something a mandate does not make it one. Because the city allowed any employee to refuse to take the vaccine for any reason, uptake rates for many city departments are far below the New York Police Department’s 85%. According to the city’s own publicly available data, less than half of the Streets Department is vaccinated, while police and fire — two departments staffed predominantly by people working essential jobs that cannot be done from home — each have vaccination rates lower than 61%.

The “refuse for any reason” mandate isn’t working.

It’s imperative that Kenney follow the lead of our neighbors, both large and small, and enact a vaccine mandate that has some real enforcement behind it. Rather than simply allowing employees to refuse a shot for unspecified reasons, it’s essential that the city establish a deadline and require applications for exemptions, just as New York officials did.

» READ MORE: Mandates convince more people to get vaccinated, Penn study finds

Creating a firmer vaccine mandate for city employees won’t just help boost our local vaccination rates — a public good all on its own — it will protect our municipal workforce and help ensure that the city is able to continue functioning as it should. COVID-19 has in the past had an impact on the city’s ability to staff departments and perform essential functions — both policing and trash collection have seen staffing crunches during the pandemic because of the number of workers sick with COVID-19.

According to data compiled by the Washington Post, COVID-19 is the No. 1 killer of police officers. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, Philadelphia has lost five officers so far.

While it is, of course, regrettable that anyone might quit working for the city over a mandate, the greater calamity would be to lose any more public servants to this pandemic.