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With time for advocacy over, FOP should tell its members to report vaccine status

A disinclination to adhere to city vaccine policy is putting Chicago in danger, even as COVID-19 has killed one in 500 Illinoisans.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot reacts to a question about Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara, who told FOP members to ignore the city’s vaccine reporting mandate, during a press conference on Friday.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

If crime trended in a new direction and the mayor called for action, we wouldn’t expect police to refuse.

If fires were suddenly getting worse, we wouldn’t expect firefighters to ignore alarms because they were offended by a mayoral decree.

We would think that — no matter what fine print some lawyers thought they found in a union contract suggesting that first responders can slough off mayoral orders.

Yet a similar disinclination to adhere to city vaccine policy is putting Chicago in danger, even as COVID-19 has killed one in 500 Illinoisans. John Catanzara, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Chicago, earlier told police officers to ignore Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s order that city employees report their vaccination status by last Friday.

As reporters Fran Spielman and Mitch Dudek wrote in Tuesday’s Chicago Sun-Times, the police department registered the lowest compliance rate among all city departments, with only 64.4% reporting their vaccination status to the city. The fire department was second lowest, at 72%.

The word “irresponsible” is just not strong enough to describe what is going on here.

Let’s make it clear: No one is insisting on vaccinations. Employees can opt for twice-weekly testing through the end of the year. And we understand unions by their nature don’t like their employers mandating things.

But allowing first responders, who deal with the public every day, to remain unvaccinated and untested puts city residents at risk. The virus spreads easily. Those with compromised immune systems can die, as just happened to Colin Powell, the late retired general and former secretary of state. Children are vulnerable because they have not yet been vaccinated.

First responders are people who put their lives on the line every day. They run into danger, not from it. As Chicago’s gun violence rages, police officers get shot.

Yet the virus is more deadly than bullets. Across the country, COVID-19 has killed more than 230 police officers this year, more than four times as many as who have been killed by guns, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. Both this year and last year, more law enforcement officers have died from COVID-19 than from other causes.

First responders should be getting vaccinated, if only to protect their own health and lives. If they refuse, they put the entire community at risk.

On Friday, a judge issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting Catanzara from publicly encouraging members not to report their COVID-19 vaccine status to the city. It’s time for the FOP to move from an advocacy role to an educational one, telling members who don’t comply that they could lose pay and eventually their jobs. For those who did not report their vaccination status, the disciplinary process has begun at police headquarters.

On Monday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a fourth union agreement with state workers to get them vaccinated, although the largest union, AFSCME, has not yet come to terms. Among other measures, workers who catch the coronavirus get time off to recover without using up sick days.

Here’s the thing about COVID-19: Every time elected officials think they know where the virus is headed, they are surprised. They are caught flat-footed by unexpected downturns, sudden spikes, breakouts in some areas, declines in others. The numbers of sick and dying people have been down in Illinois lately, but no one can say with certainty they will continue to trend downward, even with three effective vaccines. Colder weather is coming. There might be another surge, or another variant.

That means everyone needs to be pulling together to stop the spread of COVID-19. How does refusing to even report one’s vaccination status help?

Pretty much every time Pritzker gives a news conference, someone asks when we can all stop wearing masks, and Pritzker replies when the science shows it is safe. On Monday, he said he’d like to get rid of some mandates in time for the holidays. That’s understandable. People are tired of wearing masks.

As you look around, you see people around the city and county abiding by the rules. They are wearing masks indoors, even though they wish they didn’t have to. They do it to keep themselves and others safe, which is the very idea of community.

First responders should be doing the same thing. They should prioritize their own safety and the safety of the communities they serve.

They should report their vaccine status and help the city move on.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.