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As of Aug. 23, the day the Food and Drug Administration gave final approval to the Pfizer vaccine, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 76 percent of New Yorkers 18 and older were fully inoculated against the coronavirus.
Among city cops and correction officers, the numbers hadn't reached 50 percent. Emergency Medical Technicians, who are health-care workers, were only marginally better. And none of those groups, not to mention holdouts among firefighters and transit workers, seemed in a hurry to get those numbers up.
City unions have accused the de Blasio administration of failing to negotiate in good faith on terms and conditions governing vaccinations or, alternatively, weekly testing for the virus. We have to wonder, however, whether some of the labor leaders are a bit embarrassed that their members are so far behind the general public in trying to protect not only themselves but those they work with or regularly come in contact with, at a point when the Delta variant, a more-easily transmissible form of the disease, is gathering momentum.
The employee groups where the lag is greatest all have legitimate gripes with Mayor de Blasio, some of them health-related. A man who more than a year ago proclaimed, when he learned that some correction officers were being forced to work triple shifts, that this amounted to "dumb management" and would immediately end has lately been whistling past the reality that triple shifts have become more frequent in the Correction Department.
EMTs early in the pandemic were given sole responsibility for answering medical calls that were believed to be COVID-related because it was deemed too dangerous to have firefighters respond and potentially infect every member of their firehouses. Yet their union couldn't persuade the Mayor to give them the slightly higher raises received by uniformed employees compared to civilians under a recent contract deal that's awaiting ratification.
Police Officers, whose ranks were hit particularly hard last year in the early weeks of the pandemic, objected to being criticized for not wearing masks during the street demonstrations that followed the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop 15 months ago when little was said against protesters who did the same thing. And the Mayor once again undermined his moral authority by saying the protesters were doing it in unique circumstances, as if that could justify reckless behavior. In that moment, he seemed more like a college student intoxicated with a cause than a man responsible for preserving public safety—including that part related to health.
But discontent over such treatment shouldn't cloud workers' judgment when it comes to protecting themselves. The city Health Department reported on the same day the Pfizer vaccine got full approval that more than 96 percent of virus cases since mid-January that required hospitalization, and 97 percent of deaths from the disease, involved people who hadn't been vaccinated. Those who ignore how much better the odds are of their not getting the disease or more easily weathering it should they become infected are gambling with their health, and maybe their lives.
In the process, they are also potentially jeopardizing the health of those around them. The hundreds of protesters who came to City Hall Aug. 25 to voice their displeasure with vaccine mandates seemed oblivious to this reality, and how unseemly it was for public workers, often in what are regarded as helping professions, to be taking this stand.
It's more than a bit odd to see a dissident faction of the United Federation of Teachers that has fought attempts to return to in-person classes railing against forcing school personnel to be vaccinated. The initial stance was supposed to be rooted in concern about members' safety; now the group is advocating a position in the name of personal freedom that would pose health risks to the same employees. It was also slamming UFT President Michael Mulgrew for selling out his members, when in fact he has been conspicuous among his peers for delivering the hard truths they need to hear.
Union leaders know that Supreme Court precedent is on the city's side, in the form of a 1905 Massachusetts case involving the smallpox vaccine in which it was found that a public-health emergency took precedence over the rights of an individual.
Those union leaders who say it's not their place to counsel their members that they should be inoculated seem to have lost sight of the fact that they're in those jobs not just for happy events, but to speak frankly when the need arises, because they're in a position to know more about the issues and consequences than rank-and-file workers.
They should do everything possible to safeguard employee rights, including keeping members on the clock for the time when they are inoculated or tested. But to act as if they have no choice but to indulge the holdouts at a time when we can't be sure that a flare-up of the Delta variant won't have the same drastic effect here as it's brought to many other states does a disservice to not only their other members but the public that pays for their salaries, benefits and union dues.