Avoiding 'political firestorm,' Seattle Police and Fire don’t track employees’ Covid vaccinations
The city of Denver reports nearly 70% of its police officers have received the Covid vaccine. So have 80% of the frontline caregivers at the University of Washington. But there’s no data on vaccination rates among Seattle’s first responders. Only King County jails are tracking it.
Unlike Denver, where the chief of police and the union president enrolled in a Moderna vaccine trial together and they’ve tracked employee vaccinations, Seattle’s efforts seem to be characterized by a lack of information, and a possible misreading of workplace privacy rules.
Seattle Fire Department spokesperson Kristin Tinsley said in an e-mail: “The Seattle Fire Department does not require our employees to receive a vaccination, and we do not track the number of people who have been vaccinated at SFD, due to patient privacy guidelines/HIPPA. They are not required to disclose this information.”
Update 9:30am 5/21/21: Tinsley sent an updated statement saying patient privacy is not the key factor in SFD's current policy on employee vaccinations. She wrote:
“Per City policy, the Seattle Fire Department does not currently require our employees to receive a vaccination or provide proof of vaccination. However, if we have a person who tests positive for COVID-19 at a fire station, employees who have been in close contact with that individual can voluntarily disclose whether they have been vaccinated during contact tracing efforts, but a master list of vaccinated employees is not kept on file.”
Seattle attorney Jesse Wing specializes in employment law and said the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has made clear that disclosing Covid vaccinations is not prevented by medical privacy rules. HIPAA is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
“It’s not a privacy matter, it’s a public health matter,” Wing said.
“Neither HIPAA nor the Americans with Disabilities Act would protect information on a vaccine because it is not health information, it is not treatment for an illness, it is not a medical exam,” he said. “It would seem to me that particularly a public employer whose employees are having regular contact with the public should know whether their employees are vaccinated.”
The EEOC states that employers must be careful not to ask further questions beyond seeking proof of vaccination. It said, "subsequent employer questions, such as asking why an individual did not receive a vaccination, may elicit information about a disability."
Wing said there’s another explanation for employers’ reluctance to ask employees about the vaccine.
“It’s a political firestorm,” he said. “People feel very strongly that they shouldn’t be required to do something that they don’t want. But I don’t think the fact that people have strong political views about it is a legal argument.”
"Leadership often plays a very big role” in persuading employees to get the vaccine, Wing added, as well as incentives and other forms of encouragement.
Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins received the vaccination at a public event, and his employees have been highly visible champions of vaccination, offering them in settings including pop-up clinics and coming to people who can’t easily leave their homes.
SPD interim Chief Adrian Diaz also pledged to get the vaccine at a panel discussion in December, saying, "If it does go through a voluntary process, we understand that some might not take it. Speaking for myself, I will take the vaccine."
SPD spokesperson Sgt. Randy Huserik said his colleagues did not feel like the city prioritized getting them vaccinated.
“SPD is unable to track employee vaccination rates due to officers/civilian employees being left on their own to get themselves vaccinated as they became eligible,” he said in an email.
That changed this month, when the city scheduled vaccination clinics for police employees at the West Precinct and downtown headquarters.
“These clinics here in May that the city is bringing to police facilities are the first ones where Seattle PD employees have been the recipients of a city-organized vaccination effort," Huserik said.
The West Precinct clinic last Tuesday was closed to media and a spokesperson for the mayor's office declined to disclose how many employees attended it.
Huserik said an employee survey last fall “showed across all bureaus, sworn and civilian personnel, an 80% intent by department personnel to get the vaccine when one became available.”
Prisons and jails are able to provide information on staff vaccinations received onsite; King County's jail employees were also able to schedule vaccination appointments at the ShoWare Center in Kent directly through their human resources department.
The Washington Department of Corrections dashboard says so far 3,679 staff members have received the vaccine at a DOC-administered site. But a spokesperson said this is only a partial number.
They said, “Because Corrections does not have access to the number of staff who are vaccinated outside of Corrections’ clinics, and the number of staff vaccinated that is reported includes members of the Corrections Ombuds, contract staff and Disability Rights Washington, an accurate percentage of Corrections’ staff vaccinated for Covid-19 is not available.”
King County’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention has asked employees at the Seattle and Kent jails to report when they receive the Covid vaccine to human resources, but spokesperson Noah Haglund noted that the reporting is voluntary.
“We do not know what percentage of our staff has received a Covid-19 vaccination,” he said. “DAJD Director John Diaz has sent numerous messages encouraging staff to get vaccinated,” reminding them that “sick leave and Covid-19 Paid Administrative Leave may be used for Covid-19 vaccine appointments as well as recovering from side effects.”
Haglund said about 37 staff members have participated in recent mobile vaccination clinics onsite, and by May 7, another 23 had signed up for vaccination appointments at the Showare Center near the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent.
Haglund said DAJD is also working to increase the vaccination rate among people in custody, which currently stands are 48%.
“Our efforts include: adding a new video that will run continuously at intake; introducing new educational sessions to answer questions; continuing to provide and adapt handout material; recruiting vaccine ambassadors among people in custody; and fostering conversations between people in custody and health care providers," Haglund said.
None of these public employers have mandated employee vaccinations at this point, but attorney Jesse Wing said he believes a vaccine mandate would be enforceable in court.
“The CDC’s conclusion is that this is a deadly pandemic and that vaccination is the only effective way of protecting members of the public. I think there’s pretty good reason to think that the law would allow the government to require employees to be vaccinated,” he said.
Wing said he's been hearing from employees on different sides of the vaccine issue.
“I do receive calls from employees who are concerned that they may be exposed to Covid-19 in the workplace, wondering what steps they can expect or require their employer to take to protect them," he said. "I also do receive calls from employees concerned about what their rights, whether they have to disclose information to employer about whether they’ve been vaccinated."
In December, Chief Adrian Diaz spoke on a panel hosted by the Police Executive Research Forum.
“There have been mixed emotions toward the vaccine,” he told them. “We’re making sure officers have the latest information to make a well-informed decision.”
“We’ve talked to some of our legal advisors and are still trying to get good feedback about whether we can mandate the vaccine or if it will be voluntary," Diaz added. "If it does go through a voluntary process, we understand that some might not take it. Speaking for myself, I will take the vaccine.”
“The union has not taken a stand on whether or not to support vaccination. I think they want as much information as possible so they can make an informed decision and relay that information to union members.” The Seattle Police Officers Guild did not respond to a request for comment about the vaccines.
The national Fraternal Order of Police maintains a list of “Covid-19 Line of Duty Deaths.” It finds that so far 474 law enforcement officers nationwide have died of Covid-19, including six in Washington state.