Three months after Chicago began administering the COVID-19 vaccine to police officers, data from the Chicago Police Department show that only about a quarter of department employees have gotten at least one shot at a city-run site.
The department insists those numbers may be artificially low because they aren’t tracking officers who received the vaccine outside of city-hosted vaccination sites. But in January, the department asked officers if they were interested in getting vaccinated against COVID-19; 38% responded that they were. Since the start of the pandemic, police report more than 3,200 confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the department.
Experts say a low vaccination rate for officers who interact with people throughout the city everyday is dangerous for public health.
Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of the Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University, said Chicagoans should be “disappointed” in their police force for not taking advantage of the COVID-19 vaccines being doled out at CPD sites.
“Already the police have a reputation in many neighborhoods in the city that’s not very positive. So on top of all the other issues going on with the police force, the fact that they’re not vaccinated and spreading COVID there, that is not going to help their standing in the community,” Murphy said.
Murphy said if there’s vaccine hesitancy within the police department that’s “terrible for public health.”
“They’re traveling around between different neighborhoods within a district and sometimes between districts, plus meeting themselves in relatively close quarters in a police station and handling [arrestees] in very close proximity. All that just leads to, you know, spreading infection,” Murphy said. “And if one of these police officers became a super spreader, which is not going to happen if you’re vaccinated, you could spread it to dozens of people.”
Chicago began administering the COVID-19 vaccine to officers and other CPD employees at the end of January, and CPD started hosting vaccinations on Feb. 1.
As of April 27, according to the department, 3,581 CPD members had received at least one COVID-19 vaccination shot, representing 27% of the total workforce.
Spokesman Luis Agostini said officers may have gotten shots on their own, from places like Walgreens or Mariano’s. But he said the department is still hosting vaccinations and is actively working to encourage employees to take the shot through communications on the department intranet.
Earlier this year the department sent multiple emails to officers about the benefits of the vaccine and worked with the police unions to encourage vaccination.
“It is imperative to the CPD that we get as many of our members vaccinated as possible,” Michele Morris, the department’s risk manager, said at the time.
Vaccine hesitancy has been an issue in law enforcement agencies throughout the country. Locally, the Cook County sheriff reports that 45% of its employees have gotten at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine through the county. In Illinois prisons, 36% of staff had taken the vaccine through the state as of April 12.
Officers, who spoke with WBEZ on the condition of anonymity because they are not allowed to speak with the media, said the coworkers they know who have declined to get vaccinated have said they are more concerned with the potential side effects of the vaccine than they are of getting COVID-19.
Dr. Romy Block, a Chicago-area endocrinologist and author, said fear of side effects is a common reason for people who are reluctant to be vaccinated.
“Anything new could often be really scary and we hear a lot that ‘it just hasn’t been studied long enough’ or … ‘I don’t want to be first,’” Block said. “Well, now we’ve given millions of vaccines around the world and we have a lot of robust data and we’re not actually seeing long term side effects, but that the risks of not getting vaccinated are still so high.”
Block and Murphy say they believe the number of officers getting vaccinated will rise as they see their peers get the shot.
Jim Lew, a member of the CPD’s Community Policing Advisory Panel, said he believes politics could be driving reluctance. Lew said many Chicago officers identify as politically conservative — a group that national polls show is much less likely to want to be vaccinated.
Lew said he was surprised vaccination rates at the CPD site weren’t higher considering the risk officers face of contracting the novel coronavirus, and potentially bringing it home to their families.
Lew said it isn’t fair or helpful to direct any ire at officers if they’ve declined to be vaccinated. Instead he said low rates should be blamed on a society-wide failure to better educate the public.
But Jim Blissitt, a community leader on Chicago’s South Side, said officers have a responsibility to keep themselves and others protected from the potentially deadly virus.
For example, police officers not wearing masks have been a frequent complaint since the start of the pandemic. And Blissitt said that refusal to be masked, or get vaccinated is especially frustrating because often residents don’t have a choice when interacting up close with police. Blissitt also said it re-enforces a perception among some Chicago residents that officers don’t believe they have to follow the rules.
“If you don’t roll down your window when an officer approaches you, you might get shot. So you better be vaccinated if you’re going to approach me and force me to have this less than 6-feet contact with you. So that’s problematic, it’s alarming, and again, it breeds hypocrisy,” Blissitt said.