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Chicago Police Show Low Vaccination Numbers

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

One of the first groups to be given the chance to get the coronavirus vaccine in the U.S. has also been one of the hardest to convince, law enforcement officers. Chicago numbers from the police department show just over a quarter of the department has gotten a shot at city-run vaccination sites. The city says that number does not reflect officers who might have gotten shots outside the city's facilities. But as Patrick Smith of member station WBEZ reports, the problem is real, and it's nationwide.

PATRICK SMITH, BYLINE: On January 29, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown got his first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID BROWN: It was painless. And I am afraid of needles, but I didn't feel a thing.

SMITH: It was the start of the city's vaccination program for its police officers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: So I hope all of this is encouraging to all of our officers in CPD and our nonsworn staff to get the vaccine.

SMITH: But three months later, data from the Chicago Police Department show that about 3,500 CPD members had received at least one COVID-19 vaccination shot. That's 27% of the total workforce. The city insists that number is artificially low because they aren't tracking officers who get vaccinated outside of city-run sites like at pharmacies or hospitals. Dr. Robert Murphy, who heads Northwestern University's Institute for Global Health, says a low vaccination rate among Chicago police officers is...

ROBERT MURPHY: ...Terrible for public health. They're traveling around between different neighborhoods within a district and sometimes between districts, plus meeting themselves in relatively close quarters in a police station and handling prisoners in very close proximity. All that is just - leads to, you know, spreading infection.

SMITH: Vaccine hesitancy has been a problem at law enforcement agencies across the country. In a survey of law enforcement officers conducted by the website Police1, just 38% of respondents said they would voluntarily take a vaccine. That's significantly lower than the general public. And the reluctance extends to corrections staff at jails and prisons, as well.

Andy Potter is a retired corrections officer and the founder of the national corrections advocacy group One Voice United. He says COVID-19 has been devastating for people in his industry. Hundreds of police officers and corrections staff have been killed by the coronavirus. And many officers feel like they haven't been adequately protected by their own departments. But Potter says it shouldn't be surprising the vaccine rates are so low among officers.

ANDY POTTER: You're trained from day one to have suspicion of everything. You're trained from day one and conditioned to have a level of mistrust. And now someone comes up and says, yeah, we got something here that might help you out.

SMITH: In Chicago, police have reported more than 3,200 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among officers since the start of the pandemic. And some residents are outraged at the low vaccination rates. Jim Blissitt lives on the south side of Chicago. He says he's scared that if he encounters Chicago police, one of them might expose him to the coronavirus. He says officers have a responsibility to keep themselves and others protected from the potentially deadly virus.

JIM BLISSITT: If you don't roll down your window when an officer approaches you, you might get shot. So you better be vaccinated if you're going to approach me and force me to have this less than 6 feet contact with you.

SMITH: City officials say they do not have plans to mandate the vaccine for officers or other city employees. For NPR News, I'm Patrick Smith in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.