Amid omicron wave, Long Beach has yet to impose vaccine mandate for employees

Though the city of Los Angeles passed an employee vaccination mandate back in November and Long Beach officials said news about its own edict would be forthcoming after the first of the new year, the city still does not have a COVID-19 vaccine mandate in place for its workers.

The mandate is seen by public health experts as an important way to help curb the spread of COVID-19, particularly among firefighters, police and other workers who interact with the public. Infections fueled by the omicron variant have surged throughout January, with case rates and hospitalizations hitting points not seen since last year at this time.

A vaccine mandate is critical “because citizens deserve to know that if they call 911, the men and women responding to the call are vaccinated,” said Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at UC Irvine. “Vaccinated people are less likely to spread the virus.”

Negotiations between the city and various employee labor organizations over a mandate began in September, according to the city manager’s office. Negotiations are continuing over implementation dates, details over who would qualify for an exemption and other factors, according to a Dec. 28 memo from City Manager Tom Modica.

Modica, who would ultimately have to implement such a mandate, declined to be interviewed.

“The policy remains in the process of being finalized,” Modica said through a spokesperson. “Once finalized, we will have more information on the details.”

Labor leaders involved in the negotiations represent some of the most politically powerful organizations and constituencies, which further complicates the negotiations as the 2022 election heats up.

Mayor Robert Garcia’s office sent a prepared statement on Sunday, saying an update will be provided when the negotiation process ends. Garcia, who is running for the congressional seat currently held by Rep. Alan Lowenthal, did not respond to an interview request.

One city hall insider, who agreed to talk about the negotiations without attribution because the individual isn’t authorized to speak publicly, said the fact that many “breakthrough” infections have occurred among those who are vaccinated has played a role in the delay of the mandate.

While there was a great deal of pressure a few months ago for a mandate, interest waned when it became clear that vaccination wasn’t enough to keep many people from getting infected, the insider said.

But vaccines have been shown to keep people working and out of the hospital, according to Noymer, the epidemiologist. He said it’s not too late to implement an employee mandate, adding that COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere.

“COVID will simmer down faster the more people that get vaccinated,” he said.

Rex Pritchard, president of the Long Beach firefighter union, said he last met with Modica’s office a few weeks ago and spoke about a number of problems his organization had with a mandate.

“Things are always changing,” said Pritchard, adding that the city should be following the state’s lead. “That should be the policy of the city.”

Rich Chambers, president of the Long Beach Police Officers Association, said his organization is still meeting regularly with the city manager on the proposed mandate. He said the current testing protocol for employees is working, and a mandate is unnecessary.

“The testing protocol in use right now has shown its effectiveness,” said Chambers. “Officers who test positive are identified and isolated from the public. It is working to keep the community and our employees safe.”

Data released by the city manager’s office last month show that 84% of city employees as a whole are vaccinated, though vaccination rates vary widely among the various city departments, with police and fire having the lowest rates in the city.

Among the larger departments, Health & Human Services (583 employees) and Parks & Recreation (719 employees) have vaccination rates of 97% and 95%, respectively, while fire (696 employees) and police (1,032 employees) have far lower vaccination rates of 78% and 68%, respectively, according to the city manager’s latest figures, released in late December 2021.

As of Friday, 16 fire employees were isolating because of COVID-19, according to a department spokesperson, while 49 LBPD personnel were either isolating or in quarantine, according to the city manager’s office. These numbers are down from the more than 200 police and fire employees who were out from COVID-19 at the beginning of January.

If and when a mandate does go into effect, neither Pritchard nor Chambers mentioned the possibility of a lawsuit, like the one that was filed in Los Angeles by 13 police officers who said that city’s vaccination mandate violated their constitutional rights. On Jan. 10, a federal judge threw out the suit.

“This is not a court fight, in my opinion,” said Pritchard. Instead, implementing a mandate means the city would risk losing firefighters, especially those close to retirement. In fact, he said, the department recently lost five or six to neighboring counties with “more laxed” vaccination policies.

Chambers agreed. “I predict we will be engaged in discussions about where reductions will be made, which assignments will have less or maybe no officers, and what services will be impacted” if the mandate goes through, he said. “I truly hope that doesn’t happen.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comment from Mayor Robert Garcia’s office. 

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Anthony Pignataro is an investigative reporter and editor for the Long Beach Post. He has close to three decades of experience in journalism leading numerous investigations and long-form journalism projects for the OC Weekly and other publications. He joined the Post in May 2021.
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