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Public Safety Commission questions police force’s low vaccination rate

Thursday, September 9, 2021 by Amy Smith

Only about half of Austin police officers have been vaccinated against the Covid-19 virus and mask-wearing is typically at the discretion of officers responding to calls, Public Safety Commission members learned Tuesday.

The information did not sit well with commissioners, who are expected to take action on a policy recommendation at next month’s meeting. The commission heard briefings from both the Austin Police Department and Emergency Medical Services officials regarding the agencies’ Covid protocols.

Austin Fire Department representatives did not attend the meeting as they were in San Antonio at a memorial service for veteran firefighter Rodney Kelley, who died of Covid late last month, just days after two APD officers – Senior Sgt. Steve Urias and Senior Officer Randy Boyd – died of the virus.

An Austin Fire report sent to the commission noted that, as of the end of July, 77 percent of AFD’s sworn personnel had been vaccinated.

EMS, on the other hand, holds a 91 percent vaccination rate among its sworn employees, yet the agency has a higher percentage of breakthrough cases, Division Chief Ed Piker told the commission. “We believe that’s probably due to the fact that there’s a large, a significantly larger, number of people in our agency that are vaccinated.” He noted that the very nature of EMS jobs – entering long-term care facilities and emergency rooms – places employees at greater risk of exposure.

Commissioner Michael Sierra-Arévalo asked APD Chaplain Rick Randall for some insight into why police officers’ vaccination rates are so low and what the department is doing “to try and shift those numbers in a direction that can prevent further tragic losses of life for what is currently the leading cause of death of police across the U.S.”

“We have done pop-up clinics at substations in order to get people to spontaneously respond and get a vaccine,” Randall said. “And we are in the process of creating a video where we’ve had a couple of our employees who didn’t get vaccinated, got Covid, got very sick, and fortunately recovered. They’re going on to tell their story publicly now to encourage their co-workers to get vaccinated.”

APD’s low vaccination rate is not an anomaly, Randall said, noting that firefighters and emergency services personnel administer more medical care than police officers, who perhaps believe they are at a lower risk of contracting the virus.

“And then there’s a whole other social context in which people have misinformed ideas about vaccinations,” Randall added. “As a department, we’re doing everything we can to put out solid information and help people make a rational decision for their health and for the health of their co-workers.”

Commissioners were puzzled by APD’s hesitancy to enact stronger Covid guidelines and survey officers about whether they’re vaccinated, when EMS and AFD proactively surveyed their workforce to try to gain a more accurate vaccination rate.

Commissioner Rebecca Bernhardt summed things up with a rhetorical question: “We’re saying that Austin police officers are maybe 50 percent vaccinated, they don’t have to wear masks in interactions with the public, and we’re supposed to believe that this is a public safety organization?”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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