February 6, 2021

What’s going on with COVID vaccinations?


Dear PERF members, 

All across the country, we are seeing COVID vaccinations happening, and first responders are usually near the top of the list for eligibility, as they should be.

But there are some big exceptions.  With 48 members of the NYPD who have died, we were dismayed that politicians didn’t see the importance of prioritizing front-line officers for vaccinations. While a delay in New York occurred, Commissioner Dermot Shea tested positive, and now must wait three months until he can get vaccinated.  That doesn’t seem right.

Similarly, the large majority of officers in the LAPD have not been given the vaccine yet.  But the Los Angeles Fire Department was prioritized, and many of the firefighters have already gotten the vaccine.  When I interviewed the LA fire chief last week, he indicated that 70% of their department has either been vaccinated or has tested positive and has antibodies. He sent me a graph that I found important and interesting. It shows that when firefighters started getting vaccinated, within days the number testing positive began dropping. It’s also interesting that firefighters in LA will be vaccinating police officers, once the vaccines finally become available for the cops.  Talk about a trust-building exercise!

But given that level of success in the LA Fire Department, it’s wrong that the LAPD is not getting a high priority for vaccines. The LAPD has had eight officers who died from COVID – five sworn and three civilian. About 2,500 have tested positive, and 400 are in quarantine.

It also seems crazy that vaccinations for police are not a priority in the UK.  Sir Steven House, Deputy Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police, told us that Commissioner Cressida Dick, along with the police unions, have been very vocal about their disappointment. They expect it will take 4 to 6 months for the vaccinations of officers to occur. The Met has had five members die of COVID in recent weeks, in addition to three who died last year.

“Our officers are going out and dealing with the unknown. They’re putting themselves in danger over this,” Sir Steven told us. “There’s also a very real danger of so many police officers catching the virus that we won’t be able to offer all the operational response that we need to offer to the public. So it’s putting emergency service at risk. I think it is time for the government to prioritize vaccinations for police officers.”

I’ve interviewed countless chiefs over this past year who have told me story after story of their officers getting sick. Last week I spoke with Brian Dugan in Tampa as he prepared for the Super Bowl (Go Bucs from a Patriots fan), and he mentioned that he had tested positive.

One part of this discussion that has stuck out at me is the significant percentage of police officers – it seems like it’s about one-third in many departments – who are choosing not to get vaccinated.

In talking to the police in Israel police last week, they’re doing very well. They have 32,000 officers, and 22,000 have already received both doses.  I asked why that happened, and they said they spent two to three months educating their officers and answering questions before the vaccinations began!

That to me is at the heart of this issue: police officers have legitimate questions that need to be answered. But that hasn’t happened everywhere. So we need to focus on getting sound information out to those who are on the sidelines watching, and are not getting a vaccine.

And we keep hearing from many departments that the key is getting management and labor to work together.

Look at this short video that Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw put together with his union leader: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tj2TQnTW9nw&feature=youtu.be

I called Ric and asked him why he did the video, and he said he was concerned that many of his deputies were uncertain about taking the vaccine, even though five of his deputies have died as a result of COVID.

So Ric got together with Florida PBA President John Kazanjian, and they made this video together, to encourage others to take the vaccine. Apparently it worked, because Ric said that since they made the video, the number of deputies taking the vaccine has gone up.

Of course, the department that really led the way on vaccinations was Denver.  Way back in August, 144 sworn members of the department, including Chief Paul Pazen, volunteered to take the Moderna vaccine when it was still being tested. 

And on December 15, several days before the Moderna vaccine was approved for general use by the FDA, the Denver Police Department posted a video featuring Detective Nick Rogers, President of the Denver Police Protective Association.  “Being in law enforcement, we all know how it is on the streets,” Detective Rogers said in the video. “We are exposed daily. I thought it would be a great idea to get the vaccine, and to help the science move forward.”

Paul told me that today, about 80% of Denver police officers have taken the vaccine. Paul believes that the key to that success was the video by Detective Rogers, who delivered straight talk to the officers in his capacity as head of the police union.

Austin Chief Brian Manley is another example of a chief who partnered with the police union. The union president was public about getting his vaccine and encouraged his members to do the same.

This seems to be an area where labor and management can work together to make a difference. 

It reminds me of work that PERF did several years ago where chiefs and police union leaders reached consensus on adopting polices to require the use of body armor and seatbelts by officers.

We’ve heard some other interesting examples of how departments are encouraging vaccinations. Mesa, AZ Assistant Chief Ed Wessing told us, “Our city set aside 80 hours of emergency leave for those who test positive. However, if an employee has an opportunity to take the vaccine, declines, and later tests positive, they will no longer have that option. They’ll have to use their own time.”

Ed also shared this other approach: “Our city will only allow police officers who have been vaccinated to participate in off-duty police work for our Major League Baseball spring training games. So if officers want to work those spring training games, they’re going to have to get vaccinated.”

In Pittsburgh, the Police Bureau told us that they used Teams calls to hold informational sessions about the vaccine.  Earlier, when the department was working to encourage the use of masks by officers, it required all officers to watch a 1-minute video by MPO William Friburger, a SWAT team member who contracted COVID-19. The officer reported that he spent a week in an ICU, with a resting heart rate of 130 to 150.  “It almost got me,” he said. “I never thought in a million years that it would hit me as hard as it did. My wife got sick. My kids got sick. I‘m lucky to be here right now.”  That helped drive home the fact that it’s not just older people who get sick or even die of COVID. Pittsburgh now reports good success in getting officers vaccinated.

Cambridge, MA Deputy Superintendent Pauline Wells gave us many useful tips. Cambridge didn’t rush to do all the vaccinations in one day.  Instead, they stretched it out over the course of a week. “That let folks see that no one’s arm fell off,” she said.

Pauline also stressed the importance of creating mechanisms for officers to ask questions and get answers from someone they trust, whether it’s a union leader, or a medical officer within the department, or some other expert.  “We did a lot of one-on-ones with folks who were on the fence or saying they didn’t want the vaccine,” she said.

Speaking of asking questions about vaccines, PERF is planning an online Town Hall Meeting about vaccinations. Watch for details next week.  We’ll have some experts and will invite you to send us questions in advance or during the meeting.

What all of this tells me is that cops who have been on the front line during the worst health epidemic of our lives deserve to be prioritized, and also deserve to be well-informed about the choices they are making on this vaccine.