Austin Police Live by Their Own COVID Rules, It Seems
A closer look at vaccine and mask policies among Austin's first responders
Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, two facts are clear. Vaccination offers both the best means of reducing the spread of the novel coronavirus, even as new variants emerge, and the best protection against severe illness should one become infected. And wearing masks and face coverings indoors reduces transmission of the virus, offering another layer of protection that's especially important for children and others who can't yet be vaccinated or who have added medical vulnerabilities.
Public-sector responders and essential workers – police officers, firefighters, medics, teachers and librarians, park rangers and bus drivers, and many others – have been exposed to COVID-19 constantly throughout the pandemic. Between the risks they themselves face, the welfare of the public they serve, and the impact on the residents and taxpayers who support them, there are many reasons why people want to know: Are they vaccinated? Are they required to wear masks? If not, why not? What happens if and when they get sick?
We tried to find out. The answers are not that straightforward, with much variation between agencies in how they collect and monitor data and in what policies they feel are best to pursue. Mask and vaccine mandates are highly politicized, and politicians have more control over their own (public) employees than private ones. The status quo in Austin reflects the contrasting and sometimes conflicting attitudes of the people in charge.
The Virus Takes Its Toll
According to data we obtained through public information requests, as well as data requested by the City Council-appointed Public Safety Commission, 10 of these front-line public sector employees have died of COVID-19: two Austin Police Department officers, one Austin Fire Department firefighter, and seven Capital Metro bus operators and mechanics. Within the city's public safety departments, 677 first responders have contracted COVID-19 since March 2020: 307 at APD, 287 at AFD, and 83 at Austin/Travis County Emergency Medical Services. Employees of the three departments have taken an estimated 18,000 hours of leave after being exposed to or infected with the virus; the majority of those hours have been at EMS.
None of these, or any other public employees in Texas, are required to disclose vaccination status; the best their employers can hope for is truthful responses to a voluntary survey. In a statement, a city spokesperson said: "The city is strongly encouraging all city employees to get vaccinated" but does not require them to disclose their status "unless they wish to participate in an incentive program."
Some data we have comes from shots administered through the Austin Public Safety Wellness Center, a health care clinic serving police officers, firefighters, medics, and other public employees. Austin ISD is using the number of employees who've applied for a $250 vaccine incentive to estimate its vaccination rate; the deadline to submit that paperwork is Oct. 15, so the district's current estimate could change. Each of the public safety agencies, as well as Capital Metro, has also surveyed its employees asking if they have received the vaccine. These surveys have had varying response rates, and APD's was conducted before a vaccine was available (it asked if officers would be willing to get the jab if there was one), so this data is also limited.
With all of those caveats, our data (see chart, above) indicates that 91% of civilian and sworn EMS employees have received the vaccine as of early September. AFD has reported that 78% of its employees have been vaccinated: 77% of sworn employees (firefighters) and 85% of civilians. About 55% of Cap Metro's employees report being vaccinated, and 68% of all AISD employees have submitted proof of vaccination as we go to press. The police department appears to have the lowest vaccination rate; APD estimates that about 50% of employees are vaccinated. As of press time, about 71% of Travis County residents 12 years of age and older have been fully vaccinated.
“The Political Turmoil”
"In many ways, we reflect the region and we reflect America," Cap Metro executive vice president and Chief Safety Officer Gardner Tabon told the Chronicle on Sept. 14. "There are those who have made the decision not to get vaccinated due to religious beliefs, or historically some may feel America may have been unfair with vaccinations," he said, referencing the unethical Tuskegee syphilis study, which denied 400 Black Americans treatment for syphilis in a study they were told would last six months; it ultimately lasted for 40 years.
Cap Metro has not asked in its surveys why employees may be hesitant to get the vaccine; Tabon said the agency plans a private town hall for all employees at which a doctor will be present to answer lingering questions. "Our focus is making sure employees are educated, informed, and engaged as to the possible harmful effects of not having the vaccination," Tabon said. He added that the agency has adopted a number of other safety measures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 – such as regular cleaning of transit vehicles and the installation of UV air purifiers on vehicles, which can prevent some coronavirus particles from cycling through the air.
To date, federal guidelines have required both employees and passengers to wear masks on all Cap Metro buses, trains, and shuttles and at stops and stations. Mask-wearing among passengers has been mixed, though. Tangee Mobley, vice president of bus operations and maintenance, told us, "If a passenger is not cooperative in wearing a mask, we leave it up to the operator if they want to keep trying or just move on, based on the passenger's demeanor."
Austin police Chaplain Rick Randall, who also leads the department's Health and Wellness Division, points to the relative youth of police officers as a contributor to the department's low vaccination rate; some officers think they won't need the vaccine because they are less likely to suffer severe illness. Randall also cited concerns from officers over vaccine safety; only the Pfizer vaccine has received full authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
While APD's vaccination rate is on par with other U.S. law enforcement agencies, it is much lower than fire and EMS, which Randall speculated could reflect the latter two departments' proximity to medical providers and time spent in hospitals. He doesn't think there'd be much use in conducting a new survey to see how many APD employees actually have been vaccinated.
"Our concern with a survey would be even if we did one, given the political turmoil around the issue, how reliable would the information be," Randall said. "We've got our data processing folks looking at how reliable a survey would be and how to ask the questions in a way that guarantees a reliability of responses. But it is our experience over decades that no survey we put out gets a huge response rate."
Randall said that following the COVID-19 deaths of Sergeant Steve Urias and Senior Officer Randy Boyd and the lengthy illness of other officers, 20-30 APD officers sought vaccination through the Public Safety Wellness Center. The department is producing a testimonial video featuring an APD officer who survived a severe case of COVID last year to motivate more people to get the shot. Randall would not say if Urias and Boyd were vaccinated, but he said the department does keep records showing when an employee experiences a breakthrough COVID infection, and that none of the 19 breakthroughs so far at APD – 1.6% of its total cases – have resulted in hospitalization.
Mixed Masking Messages
What Randall described as "political turmoil" surrounding the vaccine also applies to the wearing of face coverings. Cap Metro has been obligated by federal rules to require masks; AISD's districtwide mask mandate for students, staff, and visitors on all campuses is currently the subject of litigation with the state, and other school districts such as Round Rock ISD have seen angry protests from parents at board meetings. On Aug. 11, City Manager Spencer Cronk issued a memo to all city departments explaining that, following an order issued by Mayor Steve Adler, masks would be required for visitors and employees in all city facilities.
The police, fire, and EMS departments all require masks to be worn in stations and in vehicles, since those are city property. An EMS spokesperson explained that their rule goes further: "N95 masks, or equivalent, are required for all patient contacts. We encourage everyone to follow the same masking recommendations outside of work to protect themselves, families and colleagues." Sworn EMS employees are required to take a rapid COVID test before starting their shifts, regardless of vaccination status.
For APD officers, the policy appears less restrictive. On the day Cronk issued his memo, Randall sent an email to all employees: "I know that there are a lot of differing opinions on mask mandates," he wrote. "However, APD personnel are required to comply with the Mayor's orders." Still, officers are not required to wear masks when interacting with members of the public unless those people specifically request they do so.
As for testing, a rapid-test requirement is only in place at the Austin police academy, "because keeping the academy going is of imperative importance," Randall explained. The department's organized crime unit also performs regular rapid testing, because its officers and detectives frequently work undercover.
In April of 2020, in the early weeks of the pandemic, APD did require universal masking, but that order was rescinded this past summer. Randall pointed to the conflict between the city's policies and those of Gov. Greg Abbott, whose executive orders have mostly prohibited mask mandates. "This would be a lot easier conversation to have if there wasn't a conflict between city and state orders," Randall told us. "It would be easier if the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and federal government had been more consistent on masking from the beginning. All of that complicates the conversation."
While a clear directive from the city manager would seem to un-complicate this conversation for reluctant APD officers, a city spokesperson declined to share the Law Department's analysis of the issue, instead referring us to a previous statement: "City employees are expected to wear masks when in City facilities and interacting with members of the public or fellow City employees." "Expected," that is, rather than "required."
The Soros Connection!
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 began in early 2020, at least 21 citizen complaints filed with the Office of Police Oversight have mentioned officers not wearing masks. Most of these predate the availability of vaccines to first responders, who began receiving the experimental Pfizer and Moderna shots in December 2020, but three complaints have been filed this year.
One complaint, filed Nov. 13, 2020, is from an APD staffer who feared retaliation for reporting their concerns about fellow employees up the chain of command. "I have been uncomfortable for several months in my office because some of my coworkers have far right beliefs and leanings," the APD evidence specialist, who withheld their name, wrote in the complaint.
The employee's supervisor "believes COVID-19 is a hoax perpetrated by Democrats" and has "taken the barest minimum of precautions in the office," the complaint alleges. The supervisor and another employee regularly and "loudly vocalize their right wing beliefs," which include that an ongoing "secret corruption investigation" proves Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, defeated for reelection in December 2020, and CM Greg Casar were "receiving illicit payments of money from George Soros."
According to an APD spokesperson the complaint received a full investigation, but since Internal Affairs determined that the allegations in the complaint were "unfounded," no disciplinary action has occurred.
A poll published by Pew Research on Sept. 15 found that reported mask-wearing over the course of the pandemic has largely correlated with party identification and changed as the partisan COVID divide grew wider. In June 2020, 76% of solid/leaning Democratic respondents and 53% of solid/leaning Republicans reported wearing masks frequently. Those percentages increased for both parties through the end of 2020 and the early months of 2021, coinciding both with widespread vaccine availability and the peak surges of the pandemic. But by August 2021, while the percentage of solid/leaning Democrats held at 71%, the figure for solid/leaning Republicans had plummeted to 30%. This trend can also be seen with vaccination; on Sept. 27, The New York Times reported that "almost every reliably blue state now has a higher vaccination rate than almost every reliably red state."
Abbott and other Republican leaders, including former President Trump, have made their support of police officers a consistent campaign issue, and the ongoing alignment between officers and police unions and the GOP is reflected in campaign contributions. According to a report by The Washington Post, contributions made by police officers and unions were roughly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans as recently as the 2012 cycle. In the 2016 cycle, GOP committees received 57.7% of those donations. In 2020, it was 77.7%; although the size of this spike may reflect better reporting of small-dollar GOP donations, the trend appears clear.
It's unclear how the vaccine-or-weekly-testing mandate announced for employers of 100 or more by Trump's successor Joe Biden will apply to state and local government workers; it's slated to be enforced as a labor protection by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. A city spokesperson referred us to a statement from Austin Public Health Interim Director Adrienne Sturrup: "We will need time to review and to get more information to assess what the impacts will be here locally. Generally, as a public health official, I'm in support of anything that helps our community increase its vaccination rate."
The patience of some observers is wearing thin. At the Sept. 7 meeting of the city Public Safety Commission, with APD and EMS officials on hand to discuss COVID policies, Commissioner Rebecca Bernhardt summed up the frustration she and other commissioners shared. "We're saying that Austin police officers are maybe 50% vaccinated, they don't have to wear masks during interactions with the public. Yet we're supposed to believe this is a public safety organization?" To which APD Assistant Chief Robin Henderson replied simply, "[Officers] are strongly encouraged to wear masks at all times in contact with the public."