SAN JOSE, CA – FEBRUARY 5: San Jose Police Academy graduate DeJon Packer, left, and acting Police Chief David Tindall salute after Packer received his new badge during a ceremony in San Jose, Calif., on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)
More than a month after becoming eligible to receive a coveted COVID-19 vaccine, only about 59% of San Jose police officers have reported to the city that they have taken a dose of the lifesaving drug.
As of Friday, 637 of San Jose’s 1,075 sworn police officers have reported getting vaccinated, according to data obtained from the city by this news organization.
The San Jose city manager’s office and the police department, however, say these numbers “may not accurately capture the total number of employees who have been vaccinated.”
That’s because the city is allowing individual departments to decide whether to mandate that their employees report their vaccination records. While the San Jose Fire Department requires such reporting, the city’s police department is leaving it up to its employees to choose whether to disclose this information.
In turn, San Jose police officers are reporting far lower vaccination rates than other first responders in the city. In comparison, 588 of 677 — or about 87% — of the San Jose Fire Department personnel, including emergency medical technicians and paramedics, had received a COVID-19 vaccine, according to data obtained from the city manager’s office.
SJPD declined to provide any comment on the matter.
Paul Kelly, president of San Jose Police Officers’ Association, said in a statement Friday that officers are being vaccinated “on pace with other first responders and it is our hope that the supply of vaccines will keep pace with those awaiting their shot.”
Though that doesn’t necessarily appear to be the case.
San Jose police officers, frontline workers in custody settings and 911 dispatchers were allowed to get their first COVID-19 vaccinations beginning January 14, and firefighters, who were eligible for their first dose a few weeks prior, were permitted to start receiving their second dose.
Although San Jose’s fire personnel started getting vaccinated several weeks before police officers, the fire department had more than 71% of its employees vaccinated less than a month into their eligibility, according to a January 13 report from the city.
Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert with UCSF, said that first responders have a high risk for getting infected with COVID-19 and also becoming a potential vector for spreading the virus, given their routine contact with community members, especially those in more vulnerable communities. So vaccinating police officers and fire personnel should be one of the highest priorities in a city like San Jose, he said in an interview Friday.
“The mission of the police is to protect and serve, so what better way to protect the community than to get a vaccine,” Chin-Hong said. “That is the ultimate protection right now.”
Employers such as the city of San Jose can require that their employees, such as firefighters and police officers, get a COVID-19 vaccination, but the city does not have plans at this time to take that step.
Although first responders can opt to go through their own medical providers, Santa Clara County has set up a separate avenue for them to acquire vaccinations more easily and efficiently than going through the general system. The Santa Clara County First Responder vaccine clinic, which the county’s public health department runs, has vaccines available for all first responders who are eligible for a dose.
Mayor Sam Liccardo said Friday that he has asked city leaders to identify any obstacles in the way of vaccinating police officers and fire personnel in hopes of getting the vaccination rate “to 100% immediately.”
“There is absolutely no good reason why every emergency responder should not be vaccinated,” Liccardo said in a statement. “By declining or stalling vaccination, they are exposing themselves to severe risk of harm, and they are exposing our residents.”
The release of vaccination figures for San Jose’s first responders comes about two weeks after the Santa Clara County Sheriff Office revealed that about half of its employees had declined to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
During the county’s Public Safety and Justice Committee earlier this month, sheriff’s officials reported that although 861 of the department’s more than 1,800 employees have received both doses of the vaccine, almost 800 more had turned down the opportunity to get a dose. Another 200 or so employees do not yet qualify to receive it at that time.
Sheriff Laurie Smith said that there was a “host of reasons” behind the department’s high vaccine decline rate, including medical reasons and difficult working hours that made it difficult to schedule an appointment.
Santa Clara County Executive Jeff Smith, though, pushed back against the assertion that logistical issues could be to blame. “The main problem is that people are refusing the vaccine,” he said at that time. “It’s not that there is not access.”
Staff writer Fiona Kelliher contributed to this story.