Analysis: Months after becoming eligible, hundreds of CT cops are not vaccinated

Photos from the Black Lives Matter protest at the Norwalk Police Station in South Norwalk, Conn. Sunday, May 31, 2020.

Photos from the Black Lives Matter protest at the Norwalk Police Station in South Norwalk, Conn. Sunday, May 31, 2020.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

Months after becoming eligible for the coronavirus vaccine, hundreds of police officers in southwestern Connecticut still have not been vaccinated against the deadly pathogen, according to a survey by Hearst Connecticut Media.

Roughly 350 police officers at seven departments in the region remained unvaccinated as of last week, suggesting vaccine hesitancy is still rife among local officers — similar to several larger cities nationwide.— even as some departments race to near-total immunity.

At the Darien and Stratford police departments, officials said just 43 percent of employees have been vaccinated. The departments employ 106 and 51 sworn officers, respectively.

According to state data, the immunization rate at the two departments trails the overall rate in the municipalities they serve. At least 60 percent of Darien residents and 48 percent of Stratford residents have received their first dose.

Connecticut is on the verge of having 70 percent of its entire adult population with at least a first dose of the vaccine, Josh Geballe, the state’s chief operating officer, said Friday. Last week, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to have 50 percent of its adults fully vaccinated.

With vaccine supply expanding each day, officials hope it will soon become easier for police officers, who often work lengthy shifts, to get a shot.

“Now that the health department has walk-ins, we’re promoting that,” said Ronald Ing, Stratford’s director of human resources.

As some departments lag behind in vaccinations more than four months after first becoming eligible, there are signs police are becoming more comfortable with the shots. Officials from at least three departments reported their forces are approaching near-universal vaccine acceptance.

More than three-quarters of the officers at the Fairfield Police Department have been immunized, a vaccination rate that outpaces neighboring departments and the town’s own rate of 57 percent.

The high level of vaccinations may be attributable, in part, to a concerted effort by department officials to secure shots for officers. Lt. Antonio Granata said the department assists officers with finding a vaccine clinic and scheduling an appointment.

In addition to Fairfield, law enforcement officials in Westport and Monroe reported that 70 percent or more of their officers are now protected against the virus. Of the more than 200 total officers who work at the departments, only about 50 have not been vaccinated.

In Stamford, which operates one of the largest police departments in the region with 300 employees, a little more than half of the officers have been vaccinated, according to Lt. Michael A. Noto.

“This number is most likely higher at this point as the vaccinations are no longer scheduled independently through the police department,” Noto said. “Once the vaccinations were opened to all above 16, many officers began scheduling their vaccinations on their own.”

About half of the 152 officers at the Greenwich Police Department have gotten a shot, according to a spokesperson for the agency.

Meanwhile, authorities at some departments, including in Norwalk and Ridgefield, are not tracking how many officers are vaccinated. Police departments in Bridgeport, Danbury, Hartford and New Haven did not respond to requests for comment about vaccines among their police forces.

Despite not knowing how many officers have protection, Susan Zecca, the deputy chief of the Norwalk Police Department, said vaccines have made once-difficult tasks simpler.

For example, vaccinated officers who are exposed to the virus no longer have to quarantine for two weeks under new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a change that has allowed more officers to stay on the streets.

“Quarantining officers has become a burden for everyone and not having to quarantine people due to an exposure definitely makes things easier,” she said.

None of the nine police departments surveyed are mandating vaccinations. Amid lingering hesitancy, some health experts have called on departments to require officers get the shots.

But mandating vaccines could pose legal challenges, according to George Contreras, an adjunct associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who studies emergency management and the threat COVID-19 poses to public safety.

The three vaccines available in the United States have been authorized for emergency use, but have not been fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“There is not an FDA-approved vaccine,” Contreras said. “Until that happens, no one is really going to have a legal leg to stand on.”

Contreras suggested police chiefs look to other tools to boost inoculations, including a robust education campaign targeting skeptical officers.

Though the pandemic is more than a year old, Contreras warned COVID-19 still presents a threat to police officers and the communities they serve and should continue to be treated seriously even as case numbers drop.

“It’s highly recommended that they do get the vaccine because they may be exposed to someone who might be COVID-positive,” he said. “Also, there’s a percentage of people who are COVID positive and are asymptomatic. So they may not even know that they have the virus and they may infect other people.”