APD officers had access to COVID-19 vaccines for months. Why aren't more vaccinated?

Investigative Summary:
Austin police officers are some of the emergency responders you’re most likely to interact with each day, but a KXAN Investigation found less than half of them have been vaccinated against COVID-19 through the city’s Public Safety Wellness Center. Those vaccines have been available for months. Officers may have received vaccinations elsewhere, but the city hasn’t tracked those numbers. We found other Texas cities’ first responder vaccination rates are also incomplete or aren’t tracked at all.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Ken Casaday was one of the first Austin police officers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. A Facebook post from Dec. 23 of last year shows him rolling up the sleeve of his uniform as a healthcare worker gave him his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

The Austin Police Association President called it an important day for him. Now fully vaccinated, he’s planning a summer trip to Hawaii.

“I’m looking forward to getting out and traveling,” he said. “Being safe but still getting out and living my life.”

Late last year we reported that APD officers could start getting the vaccine.[2] Some even received the shot ahead of schedule, thanks to extra doses meant for first responders but from other Austin-area healthcare systems.

Casaday says the signup process for officers was cut-and-dry.

“Officers were allowed to sign up,” he said. “And I think everyone that has wanted to be vaccinated has been vaccinated.”

APD tells us the vaccine had been offered to all its officers, primarily through the Austin Public Safety Wellness Center. The organization is funded in part by the city and provides resources for Austin first responders including physical fitness support, mental health care and vaccinations.

We asked Casaday whether the vaccine has been widely available to officers, and he told us: “I had no officers complaining they could not get a vaccine.”

But despite that access, approximately 49% of APD officers are vaccinated, according to the department. The number doesn’t include officers who may have gotten vaccinated on their own, data the city or Austin Police don’t keep.

Vaccines offered, but a personal choice

An Austin Police Department spokesperson told us the department operates as a POD, or Point of Dispensing, under the authority of Austin Public Health. Vaccinations have been offered on a five-day-per-week schedule with blocks of appointments every 30 minutes, he said.

“[We’ve] done our best to schedule employees as conveniently as we can for their work schedule,” said the spokesperson.

City records indicate less than half of Austin police officers have been vaccinated through the Austin Public Safety Wellness Center. These numbers don't include officers who received vaccines elsewhere (KXAN Graphic)
City records indicate less than half of Austin police officers have been vaccinated through the Austin Public Safety Wellness Center. These numbers don’t include officers who received vaccines elsewhere (KXAN Graphic)

We asked the department whether it encourages its employees to get the vaccine.

“We do not attempt in any way to influence the decision our officers make regarding the vaccine beyond supplying appropriate information about the vaccines that are currently available,” the spokesperson said. “We make the opportunity available for getting vaccinated and leave it up to the officers to register and receive an appointment.”

Casaday says he has spoken to dozens of officers about his vaccine experience. He says there is hesitation among some in the department but he strongly believes it’s a personal choice.

“I think it’s just not trusting a vaccine that came out over a short period of time or what they perceive as a short period of time,” he said. “I don’t necessarily agree with it, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s none of my business.”

This week, KXAN Investigator Kevin Clark asked Public Safety Commissioner Rebecca Webber about APD’s vaccination numbers and if the city is considering those numbers when it looks at the bigger police picture.

Webber brought the issue up at the commission’s meeting this week, asking APD leadership to see first responder vaccination rates presented in quarterly reports moving forward.

“Particularly, I’m concerned about sworn [employees] because I have this sense they interact with the public more often,” she said during Monday’s meeting. “I would suggest that it should be another metric we track.”

A look at other Texas cities

KXAN reached out to other police departments in other large Texas cities to ask about vaccination rates for their officers but learned it’s not always easy to get precise numbers.

Just under 50% of officers in San Antonio are vaccinated, according to numbers from the end of January (KXAN Graphic)
Just under 50% of officers in San Antonio are vaccinated, according to numbers from the end of January (KXAN Graphic)

The San Antonio Police Department says just under 50% of its officers had been vaccinated, a number similar to APD’s. SAPD says the numbers are from the end of January and could not provide more recent data. A department spokesperson says SAPD is not offering vaccination incentives but does have officers who work as liaisons to help with signups and operates a 24-hour COVID hotline for officers that are requesting information on COVID vaccine locations.

Both Dallas and Fort Worth Police tell us they don’t keep a strict count. A spokesperson for Dallas PD said “a large number of officers” received their vaccines at the Dallas Convention Center.

Fort Worth PD says its count is based on voluntary reporting only. The department tells us about 20% of both officers and non-sworn employees have completed the survey noting they have been vaccinated.

20% of both officers and non-sworn employees at Fort Worth Police Department said they had been vaccinated in a voluntary survey (KXAN Graphic)
20% of both officers and non-sworn employees at Fort Worth Police Department said they had been vaccinated in a voluntary survey (KXAN Graphic)

“We have coordinated with Tarrant County Health and opened a vaccination clinic on our main campus,” said a Fort Worth PD spokesperson in an email. “We have sent out numerous emails to remind staff of the dates and times for the clinic, encouraging them to get the vaccination and providing up-to-date information on both COVID and the vaccination.”

The Houston Police Department told us to file a public information request for its officers’ vaccination numbers, and we are waiting on a response.

EMS, fire have higher vaccination rates

Compare the publicly available numbers of the Austin Police Department and other emergency responders in the city, and it shows officers may have a lower vaccination rate.

The Austin Fire Department says 65% of its employees are vaccinated. That includes about 60% of sworn and 95% of non-sworn employees.

The Austin Fire Department and Austin-Travis County EMS have reported higher percentages of vaccinated employees (KXAN Graphic)
The Austin Fire Department and Austin-Travis County EMS have reported higher percentages of vaccinated employees (KXAN Graphic)

When we asked about incentives for getting the vaccine, AFD tells us the city is covering vaccine side effects as an on-the-job illness. KXAN hasn’t been able to confirm if the same applies to APD. An AFD spokesperson told us vaccinated firefighters who have high-risk COVID-19 exposures at work are not required to quarantine, as long as they test negative.

Austin-Travis County EMS says 86% of its sworn employees are vaccinated and the others are still able to do so through the Austin Public Safety Wellness Center. EMS says its non-sworn employees are also eligible for the shots, but the vaccination rates for those employees were not available.

Kevin Clark

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