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Most Arizona cities aren't tracking employee COVID-19 vaccination rates
The Legislature's vaccine mandate ban is on hold, and cities are free require employee vaccinations. The vast majority aren't even asking if employees are vaccinated. Here's why that's a problem.
The City of Tucson stands alone: It’s the only Arizona city to require COVID-19 vaccine for their employees, defying the state and inviting legal challenges.
But its employees have a much higher rate of vaccine uptake than the Arizona average, a sign that the mandate is probably working to get more people vaccinated.
We set out to compare the vaccination rate in Tucson to other Arizona cities to answer a few simple questions: Do mandates work? Are mandates necessary, or are the vast majority of municipal employees, especially those who work closely with vulnerable populations, getting vaccinated voluntarily? Do other incentives that local governments have poured the public’s money into actually increase vaccinations?
These are important data points that could help guide public health discussions as policymakers across the state weigh the risks and benefits of following Tucson’s lead.
We also wanted to see how police and fire departments, which work face-to-face with the public most often, compared to overall city rates.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible.
No city in the Valley seems to be tracking the overall vaccination rates of their employees, including employees who interact with the public regularly, like police and emergency services. They have not conducted voluntary anonymized surveys to ask about vaccination. And neither has the state for its workforce. (And yes, it’s legal for an employer to ask about vaccination status.)
The lack of information shows just how contentious even asking about the COVID-19 vaccine has become. Simply tracking the vaccination rates among employees can provide an incentive for getting the vaccine, like telling people all their neighbors are voting.
This issue mirrors how the state more broadly has handled the pandemic: by catering to the loudest voices and avoiding upsetting people, regardless of public health guidance.
Cities, counties and the state regularly ask their employees questions to understand where they stand on all sorts of issues; private companies do this, too. (And for what it’s worth, mandates in area hospital systems have sparked more than 90% vaccination rates and few resignations, the hospitals said.)
In the absence of any of this data, you can’t compare Arizona cities with and without mandates. Vaccine mandates inspire our most heated debates these days, so knowing whether and how they work puts data behind those debates. In other U.S. cities that do track employee vaccination rates, data shows mandates have increased vaccine uptake.
And it’s helpful to know how likely you are to run into an unvaccinated cop or firefighter when you call 911, especially in the fifth-deadliest state for COVID-19 nationwide. Emergency services directly come into contact with people.
The most comprehensive datasets we could find came from Tucson and Pima County, and show that law enforcement and fire departments were the most likely to request exemptions from the vaccine mandate.
Pima County recently voted to adopt a soft mandate that applies only to employees that work with vulnerable populations.
The City of Phoenix has some information about its vaccinated employees, but only ones that submitted proof of vaccination in order to receive a $75 “safety award.” The City of Peoria provided a rough estimate. And the state doesn’t have much beyond the fact that about 10,000 state workers got vaccinated at a drive-through site in the Arizona Department of Administration parking lot.
But all the other cities we reached out to — Chandler, Tempe, Scottsdale, Mesa, Gilbert, Goodyear, Glendale, Apache Junction, Queen Creek, Avondale, Buckeye, Surprise and Guadalupe — said they do not track or ask employees about their vaccination status. (The Gilbert and Buckeye police departments shared vaccination rates with the Phoenix New Times in August.) Some cities noted they provided staff with vaccination opportunities. Few offered a reason for why they’re not interested in finding out what percent of their employees, especially those who come into regular contact with the sick, elderly or otherwise vulnerable, have been vaccinated.
“We do not have that information and we have not asked employees for that information,” Matthew Burdick, spokesman for the City of Chandler, said. “We consider a COVID-19 vaccination to be part of their personal healthcare choice.”
Asking a question to collect aggregated data that informs your community doesn’t negate anyone’s personal choice. And providing the public with anonymous, aggregate statistics on vaccination rates doesn’t violate anyone’s medical privacy.
Will Humble, the former director of the Arizona Department of Health Services and the executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, said many types of city workers aren’t necessarily the top tier of employees whose vaccine status is important for the public to know.
Vaccination rates in places like hospitals and long-term care facilities are more critical, though some city workers, like fire departments that provide a lot of direct medical care to the public, are more important than the average city worker.
In some departments whose work is focused on public health, like the Arizona Department of Health Services, for instance, reporting vaccination rates among employees to the public could lend credibility, he said. If people encouraging the vaccine are also getting it at high rates, that’s a strong signal to the public.
Still, Humble was surprised that more cities aren’t surveying their employees voluntarily and anonymously, especially more progressive cities.
“It would help to make decisions about when to come back into the office,” he said.
For a story like this, we reach out to all Phoenix-area cities (and additional sources) and then compile that into something straightforward and readable. It takes work! And we think that’s worth $7 per month.
What we know about city rates so far
Tucson, the one city that has implemented vaccine mandates for its employees, has about 4,000 employees. So far, about 600 haven’t been vaccinated, though about half of those had received an exemption for medical or religious reasons, the Arizona Daily Star reported. That means more than 90% of city employees who didn’t receive an exemption have been vaccinated. Employees who don’t get vaccinated by Dec. 1 face termination in mid-December.
The state banned vaccine mandates, but because of a practice of throwing too many non-budget items into the state budget, the anti-vax mandate law is now up in the air. A lower court ruled the mandate and other provisions in the budget weren’t constitutional. The lawsuit is on appeal.
Still, by mandating vaccines for employees, Tucson is out on a limb. The Tucson mandate spurred a complaint by a state lawmaker, who asked Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich to investigate whether the city is breaking state law by questioning some employees’ religious exemption requests. If the city is found to be in violation, it could face a loss of state-shared revenues of more than $100 million. Pima County’s watered-down version hasn’t attracted the same level of negative attention from lawmakers, at least not yet.
The City of Phoenix has about 14,000 employees, who aren’t required to notify the city of their vaccination status, but are encouraged to do so, Vielka Atherton, public information officer for the city’s Human Resources Department, said.
The city also offers employees who show proof of vaccination or a documented exemption a $75 “vaccine safety award.”
Almost 7,000 Phoenix employees have received the vaccine safety awards — about half of city employees. (That doesn’t account for people who didn’t submit documents or didn’t care to receive money for vaccination.) In the Phoenix Police Department, the percentage is lower: about 1,500 of about 3,900 employees received the awards. And in the Fire Department it’s even lower: about 660 of about 2,000 received the awards.
In Peoria, spokeswoman Kristina Perez said the city estimates about 35% to 40% of employees have been vaccinated based on appointments the city had available and what was scheduled. There was no breakdown for police and fire departments.
Pima County, which recently adopted the vaccine mandate for employees that deal with vulnerable populations, offers a comprehensive dataset on employee vaccination rates.
Overall, 80% of county employees have chosen to get vaccinated, and many departments have a 100% vaccination rate, even without a mandate. But the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, the largest department in the county, is only hitting 60%.
When a man died of COVID-19 in the sheriff’s jail recently, Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos pointed to the low vaccination rates of his employees, saying jail workers likely passed him the virus that killed him.
“We basically gave this guy a death sentence,” Nanos said. “We made him go through quarantine protocols, everything CDC gave us as guidelines. We think he’s gonna be safe, we stick him in a pod that ok, everybody in there went through those same protocols. They all believe they’re safe, except one person is allowed to come and go out of that pod. That’s the corrections officer.”
Gov. Doug Ducey and Republican lawmakers have done all they can to discourage vaccine mandates, so it’s no surprise that the state isn’t tracking vaccinations for its employees, either.
The state government hasn't asked its workers to disclose their vaccination status or sent any surveys about it, Arizona Department of Administration spokeswoman Megan Rose said.
But, Rose noted, the state ran a drive-through vaccination site for state employees in the ADOA parking lot from January to April, where more than 20,000 vaccines were administered, including to approximately one-third of the state workforce, or 10,000 people. There were and are many more locations for state workers to get vaccinated, though, so this isn’t an approximation to a vaccination rate.
The Arizona Department of Health Services isn’t tracking vaccinations for its employees, either, the agency said.