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Covid vaccination mandates for city workers caused backlash. But data show they’re working.

Public employees are vaccinated at a higher rate than the general public in 19 cities, an NBC News analysis found.
A police officer receives a Covid-19 vaccination Foxborough, Mass., on Jan. 15, 2021.
A police officer gets a Covid-19 vaccine shot Foxborough, Mass., on Jan. 15.Scott Eisen / Getty Images file

The Covid-19 vaccination rate for municipal workers who are required to get shots outpaces that of the general public in several major U.S. cities, a sign that mandates have been effective despite protests and lawsuits.

NBC News compiled employee vaccination data from 20 cities that are mandating the shots and found that the rates for city employees — a group that includes health care workers, police officers, sanitation workers and firefighters — are about 15 percentage points higher than for the rest of the general populations of the cities or counties they work in. 

Nationally, about 79 percent of municipal workers in cities surveyed are fully vaccinated against Covid, well above the country’s overall rate of 58 percent.

San Francisco, Seattle and San Jose, California, had some of the highest public employee vaccination rates, with 94 percent to 97 percent of their workforces having been vaccinated. And in New York City, where 9,000 unvaccinated employees were placed on unpaid leave for not complying with the city’s mandate, the municipal vaccination rate is 91 percent.

New York was one of the worst-hit cities at the start of the pandemic, and to date about 30,000 residents have died from Covid. In San Francisco, which enacted a vaccination mandate to enter bars, restaurants and gyms, 670 people have already died. Santa Clara County, where San Jose is located, lost about 1,800 residents to Covid.

Stephanie Formas, the chief of staff for Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, said that following the science and the data has been the city’s North Star throughout the pandemic. The Seattle region was one of the first hit by Covid, with the one of the earliest recorded deaths in February.

“When we introduced our vaccine mandates for city employees ... we did it with the united front, because all of us believed how important it was to protect our employees,”  she said.

Formas attributed the recent increase in vaccination rates to a paid leave program that was launched in September.

“We’re really proud of this proposal for employees,” she said. “They were able to receive eight hours of paid time off. ... We also created a paid leave program for any employee that submitted their vaccine verification. And that would mean 80 hours for employees who got vaccinated but might have to miss work if they are exposed to a breakthrough case or their child is exposed or needs to quarantine.”

Los Angeles is the only city of the 20 in the analysis where the municipal Covid vaccination rate was lower than that of the general population; 74 percent of city workers are vaccinated, just short of the city’s overall rate of 79 percent. The lower rate is attributed to fewer vaccinations among the city’s parks and street services employees, as well as its police and firefighters. 

But that isn’t the norm.

Police and firefighter vaccination rates lag behind those of other municipal workers in most cities, the data show. Health experts say the trend is worrying, as first responders are at a higher risk of infection because of the nature of their jobs.

“Somebody working from home is not going to spread the virus, that’s for sure. But somebody who’s working in a public facility and going face to face with people ... they run the risk of infecting other people if they’re infected,” said Dr. Robert Lahita, the director of the Institute for Autoimmune and Rheumatic Diseases at St. Joseph’s Health in Paterson, New Jersey.

“Mandated emergency personnel should be vaccinated,”  he said. “It’s common sense.”

Unions representing police officers and firefighters have protested mandates and clashed publicly with officials. The issue is so contentious that Charlotte, North Carolina, mandated that only new employees get vaccinated. In Chicago, a judge halted a vaccination mandate for police officers on Nov. 1, saying the issue should be handled through arbitration.

Seattle is still negotiating with the Seattle Police Officers Guild, which said the mandate is contributing to a “public safety staffing crisis.”

Anna Esquivel, a nurse with Chicago’s Public Health Department, said: “I think, especially here in the United States, there’s not a lot of mandates, and people tend to not like it when the government says ‘this is what you need to do’ ... even if it’s for your own good or even if it’s to protect yourself.”

Esquivel administers vaccines in public schools and shelters and at a massive vaccination drive at the city’s United Center, which hosts Chicago Bulls and Chicago Blackhawks games. She said that the mandate was supposed to make the city workers feel safe but that many of the workers she has spoken to have concerns.

“People still have some reservations,” she said, “and what I hear the most is that people feel that the vaccine was rushed.” 

As of Monday, about 17 percent of Chicago’s workforce, or nearly 5,000 employees, had still not been vaccinated, nearly half of whom were from the police department. 

Esquivel said she knows people in the health department who still aren’t vaccinated, but she still advised hesitant workers to get the shots.

“I would tell them that the vaccine is going to keep you safe. No vaccine is 100 percent effective, but it’s going to protect you, and it’s going to keep you from dying,”  she said.

The findings may presage vaccination mandates for private-sector employees, many of whom would fall under a federal mandate issued in September by President Joe Biden. The mandate would require all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure that their workforces are fully vaccinated by Jan. 4 or undergo weekly testing. A federal appeals court halted the rule Saturday as lawsuits from several Republican-led states make their way through the legal system.