Vaccination rates low among Tampa Bay cops, emergency medical workers

Those agencies who were able to provide estimates said fewer than half their employees have received the shot.
Public safety personnel in Tampa Bay, including police officers in Clearwater, come in close contact with the public on a day-to-day basis. Those agencies who could provide an estimate say the rates of COVID-19 vaccination among their employees are lower than in the local population as a whole.
Public safety personnel in Tampa Bay, including police officers in Clearwater, come in close contact with the public on a day-to-day basis. Those agencies who could provide an estimate say the rates of COVID-19 vaccination among their employees are lower than in the local population as a whole. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 24, 2021

In late July, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri sent an email to his 2,900 employees imploring them to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Hospitals and emergency medical systems are overwhelmed with the surge of the delta variant, Gualtieri wrote. The vaccine is abundant yet “too many people who work here are not getting it and show up to work here every day exposing others to infection.”

The sheriff did not mandate vaccines or masks for his agency, citing individual rights, but said, “when our decisions affect others it changes the equation.”

“You have a right to control your own health but you also have an obligation to not be selfish and to help keep others from getting COVID from you,” Gualtieri wrote.

Still, as of Aug. 10, Gualtieri estimated that only about 27 percent of his workforce had been vaccinated at the agency’s on-site clinic, well below the 63 percent vaccination rate at the time for Pinellas County as a whole. He did not provide figures on how many Sheriff’s Office employees were vaccinated outside of the on-site clinic. Ninety-two employees were off work on Aug. 10 due to the virus.

Police, fire and emergency medical service employees come in close contact with vulnerable residents on a day-to-day basis. But half of the 12 largest public safety agencies in Tampa Bay could not provide exact coronavirus vaccination rates for their employees because they are not tracking the statistics.

The six agencies that were able to provide an estimate, relying on information that employees provided voluntarily, reported a range of 27 percent to 60 percent vaccinated.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office is not tracking vaccinations among its 1,391 employees because “we believe this is private medical information,” according to public information officer Amanda Hunter.

Neither are Tampa Police, Tampa Fire Rescue, St. Petersburg Police, Clearwater Fire & Rescue or Clearwater Police.

“At this point, it is a personal decision that we will have to contend with either way,” said Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter, adding that he has asked employees who refused the vaccine to reconsider.

Sunstar Paramedics, serving all of Pinellas County, was one of the first agencies to be offered the vaccine when it became available in December. To date, just 33 percent of the agency’s paramedics and emergency medical technicians have voluntarily reported they have been vaccinated, said Chief Operating Officer John J. Peterson.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office did a voluntary poll of its 3,653 employees in May, when 48 percent reported they had been vaccinated, according to chief communications officer Crystal Clark.

That is slightly below the 61 percent of people in Hillsborough and Pasco counties age 12 and up who had been vaccinated as of the week of Aug. 13.

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Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law July 1 that prohibits business and government from requiring proof of vaccine for public access to services. But federal employment law allows local governments and employers to require that employees get vaccinated.

Last month, Hillsborough County became one of the first governments in the Tampa Bay region to issue a vaccination mandate, requiring all hires with a starting date on or after Aug. 30 — including those with Hillsborough Fire Rescue and the Sheriff’s Office — to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19.

The new requirement won’t apply to the roughly 5,000 people already employed by the county. Instead, Hillsborough is offering existing employees incentives to get vaccinated, including extra holiday time and eligibility for a $50 wellness reward, county spokesman Todd Pratt said.

Others among Florida’s most populous counties are taking a harder line.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings announced that all 4,200 nonunion employees will be required to get their first vaccine by the end of August and the second by the end of September, the Associated Press reported. Miami-Dade County began requiring county employees to show proof of vaccination this month or undergo weekly testing.

And in July, the Department of Veterans Affairs became the first federal agency to mandate vaccines for its front-line workers, part of one of the largest health care systems in the U.S.

Leaders of public safety agencies in Tampa Bay expressed support for employee vaccine requirements, but only Hillsborough County has taken action.

“It has benefits for the obvious reasons of hopefully preventing serious illness in those who contract the virus,” Hillsborough County Fire Chief Dennis Jones said. “Also, current hospital statistics indicate a very high percentage of COVID-19 patients, including ICU patients, are unvaccinated.”

Jones said 29 percent of his 1,146 employees have voluntarily reported receiving the vaccine as of Aug. 13. The agency had recorded 348 positive cases as of last week he said.

Transcare Ambulance Service, which mostly serves Tampa and Hillsborough County, is in the process of collecting vaccination records from its 133 employees and is considering a vaccination requirement, said vice president of talent management Katie J. Androff. Based on records collected so far, Androff estimates 60 percent of the employees are vaccinated.

“It’s very challenging to operate a specialized service that requires a unique skill set during a public health crisis,” Androff said. “In any group of people there are individuals who have made passionate decisions pertaining to the vaccine.”

The St. Petersburg Police Department had recorded 159 positive cases through Aug. 10 but is not tracking vaccinations within the agency.

As of Tuesday, 32 percent of St. Petersburg city employees had voluntarily reported being vaccinated but that figure is not broken down by department, said Ben Kirby, spokesperson for Mayor Rick Kriseman.

Police Chief Anthony Holloway said his department has hosted an in-house vaccination clinic for employees and their family members and posts reminders throughout hallways.

”Yes, I would like to see them vaccinated for the simple reason that we, as public safety employees, encounter many individuals throughout the course of our workday,” Holloway said. “The vaccine provides a layer of protection that may help prevent public safety employees from spreading the virus to others.”

Times staff writer Jake Sheridan contributed to this report.

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