Vaccine Resisters

New York City, once the epicenter of the pandemic, has become a center of the national argument between community responsibility and personal freedom

| 30 Oct 2021 | 11:46

As they go about their daily lives New Yorkers don’t generally give much thought to Denmark.

But they probably should, as garbage piles at the curbs here, unions warn of firehouse closings and cops are pulled from desk jobs to cover for absent colleagues.

These dystopian developments are the blowback from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s order for mandatory vaccination of sanitation workers, fire fighters and police officers - in fact, all municipal workers save correction officers, who got a one-month deferral because Rikers Island is such a shambles.

The public employees protested that the power of the state should not be used to bully them into such a personal decision. A firefighters group even called itself Bravest for Choice, an interesting echo of the long fight for the right to legal access to abortion.

“The Mayor seems to have forgotten the sacrifices we made during the pandemic,” the head of the union representing ambulance workers, Oren Barzilay, said at one of the numerous protests. “We had a choice then and our members chose to come to work despite the hazards. Where is our choice now?”

For his part, de Blasio says he does respect the sacrifices of frontline workers. That, he said, is why he offered them a $500 incentive to get vaccinated before the mandate took effect, much to the irritation of teachers who got vaccinated sooner under an earlier mayoral mandate.

The many court suits, press conferences and protests in some ways clouded a simple point.

New York City, once the epicenter of the pandemic, had now become a center of the national argument between community responsibility and personal freedom.

Which is where Denmark enters the picture. This is a place, slightly smaller than New York City in population, that has a higher vaccination rate than New York City (75 percent fully vaccinated in Denmark, only 66 percent in New York).

Yet, despite their high vaccination rates, infections of Sars-CoV-2 surged in Denmark. The number of new cases each day has quadrupled in the past month, from just over 400 to more than 1,800 new cases a day. In New York City, there are currently about 800 new cases a day.

The simple point was made bluntly by the emergency committee convened by the World Health Organization to monitor the spread of Sars-CoV-2.

“The pandemic is far from finished,” the committee reported.

Patchwork of Vaccination

The virus continues to spread across Russia and Eastern Europe, in Africa and Staten Island. Much of Africa remains largely unvaccinated. Yet as Denmark illustrates even places with high levels of vaccination are still vulnerable, particularly, as in New York, if vaccination rates are spread unevenly so that the unvaccinated can contract the virus and spread it to both unvaccinated and vaccinated people.

This risk rises as more people get out and about, returning to work, going to restaurants and theaters.

“Welcome back New York,” an enthusiastic Sarah Meyer, the MTA’s chief customer officer, proclaimed Friday in releasing news that the subways system had hit a new daily ridership peak since the pandemic of 3.3 million (still well below the 5.5 million average each day before the pandemic).

New York business are also eagerly anticipating the return of international travelers beginning November 8.

So the good news of recovery comes with a warning label to maintain mask and distancing practices and to get vaccinated. The public is divided. Many people are lining up to get their third and even fourth doses of vaccine. Many parents were relieved to learn their 5- to 11-year-olds could soon be vaccinated.

Yet at the same time, a substantial minority still wants no part of vaccination.

The low rate of vaccination among its own workers is part of why the city has now ordered everyone to get vaccinated. There is no way for a police officer to control who she comes in contact with on patrol and firefighters actually live in congregate settings at firehouses.

The Daily News highlighted the patchwork of vaccination with previously undisclosed data by police precinct. So, for example, while 26 percent of the NYPD, overall, was unvaccinated as of early last week (it was below 20 percent by the weekend), more than four officers in ten were unvaccinated in the 26th Precinct in Morningside Heights, the 34 in Washington Heights and the 25 in East Harlem.

In the Ninth Precinct in the East Village and in Midtown South, 38 percent were unvaccinated. In Midtown North 36 percent were unvaccinated.

“We’re at the end of the wire here,” NYPD commissioner Dermott Shea told NYPD employees in a video on Wednesday. “By Friday you’re supposed to be vaccinated. Starting on Monday, you will be put in a no pay status.”

Staff Shortages

The unions for police, fire and sanitation all seemed to be in a game of chicken with the city, predicting disruptions that the city said it was well prepared to avert.

The Fire Department said it was shuffling firefighters around to keep firehouses open, but denied a report from Representative Nicole Malliotakis, Republican of Staten Island, that 26 firehouses were closed Saturday morning for short staffing.

“If someone dies due to a slower emergency response, it’s on Bill de Blasio and his overreaching mandates,” she said.

Which brought a riposte from Council Member Mark Levine, Democrat of Washington Heights and candidate for Borough President.

“Fire houses are closed not because of the mandate,” he tweeted. “They are closed because of people who are refusing to protect themselves, their families, their colleagues and the public by getting a safe and effective vaccine.”

Sanitation workers tried to give the city a taste of worse to come by leaving considerable amounts of trash uncollected as they made sure their equipment was working, their gloves were at hand and, in general, observed details that in happier times were left unattended in their work.

Faced with staff shortages, the sanitation department said it was delaying the start of curbside composting in Midtown and on the West Side.

“New Yorkers need to know that their city’s going to be clean, and they have a right to that,” de Blasio said, warning there would be “consequences” for the apparent slowdown. “And they have a right to expect that their public employees will do their job for their fellow New Yorkers. We’re paying them to do a job. They have to do the job.”

Harry Nespoli, the chief of the sanitation worker’s union, said that testing unvaccinated workers was more than adequate. “When New York City was closed ... all essential workers had to come to work, and they got sick,” said Nespoli. “They took it home to their families, and they got better, and they had to come back again. Now you tell me that we’re not good enough to be city workers?”

Yet for all the anger, many uniformed workers did appear to be taking their jabs as the deadline approached, just as many teachers and health workers had as the city imposed mandatory vaccination on them in past weeks.

“We’re going to be OK,” Shea reported Friday after 1,000 cops took the jab in the final hours.

The impact Monday may also be muted as hundreds of cops and other workers grabbed a loophole to delay the moment of reckoning. If they applied for a “reasonable accommodation” they could stay on the job while their application was pending, Commissioner Shea said. Officials said it could take a month or more to consider all the applications.

“I’m guessing a lot of them will get vaccinated,” one detective told the Daily News about his colleagues. “Who wants to be out of work.”

“We’ve given people lots and lots of time to come along voluntarily,” the mayor said. “Now we’re saying that we have the right to save New York, to ensure the safety of our employees, the safety of our people.”

The good news of recovery comes with a warning label to maintain mask and distancing practices and to get vaccinated. The public is divided. Many people are lining up to get their third and even fourth doses of vaccine ... Yet at the same time, a substantial minority still wants no part of vaccination.