AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the delta variant of the coronavirus continues to spread in Austin, the city’s Public Safety Commission demanded information from various public safety organizations on how they were protecting their employees and the public.
The Public Safety Commission meets monthly as advisory body to the city council on budgetary and policy matters concerning the Austin Police Department, Austin Fire Department and Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, Commissioner Rebecca Webber asked, “What are public safety personnel required to do as far as keeping themselves safe when they are taking calls?”
According to a presentation to the commission Tuesday, 91% of Austin-Travis County EMS personnel have received a COVID-19 vaccine.
Interim Chief Jasper Brown told the commission they have other vaccine requirements, but currently, due to a mandate from Gov. Greg Abbott, they are not mandating the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We’re looking at options of what we can do in the future with our legal department,” he said.
ATCEMS Division Chief Ed Piker said they refer their staff to the city manager’s policy, requiring masks in city buildings or on city property.
“When they are in station or in an ambulance, which is city property, they are required to mask during those periods, as well as their engagement with the public during a call,” he said. “Not just with a face mask, but with an N95 respirator.”
An Austin Fire Department representative was not present at the meeting, due to the funeral of one of the department’s own firefighters who died after contracting COVID-19. Data from a survey at the end of July was presented, instead.
637 sworn employees responded to a survey at the end of July, and 490 of them reported being vaccinated. That’s about 77% of the sworn employees. 110 civilian employees responded, and 92 reported being vaccinated — around 84%.
A spokesperson for the department told KXAN its COVID-19 safety protocols had not changed in recent days.
Michael Glynn, a trustee for the Texas State Association of Fire Fighters, commended AFD for requiring rapid COVID-19 tests at the start of every shift. He said the Dallas Fire Department enforced a similar rule, and he believes it could save lives.
“If they can find out they are testing positive before they come on shift — on-duty — and before they enter the fire house, that allows them to get them out of the station and send them home; get them treatment and on the path to recovery, without exposing other firefighters,” he said.
Glynn is also the president of the Fort Worth Professional Firefighters Association. He said they requested a similar rapid-test program but haven’t been able to obtain the supplies from the state.
The Austin Police Department estimates about 50% of its force to be vaccinated.
“Our best guess is about half of our employees,” said Rick Randall.
He told commissioners their data primarily comes from a survey done in April 2020, asking officers whether they intended to get a vaccine if one became available.
“Given that our folks could be vaccinated at the Public Safety Wellness Center; could be vaccinated if they worked, for example, an overtime contract with Seton hospital, they could have been vaccinated at the hospital; then, of course, people can be vaccinated at any location — Walmart, H-E-B,” he said.
The commissioners pressed APD on why there wasn’t a more recent survey conducted on officers’ vaccine status.
“We don’t ask,” Randall said, noting they treat it like other medical information. “We do have vaccination requirements for stuff like hepatitis, but COVID has been treated somewhat differently because of the controversy.”
Still, given the estimate, Commissioner Michael Sierra-Arevalo asked, “Given your experience, your exposure to first responders, I’m hoping that you might be able to provide some insight as to why we have such a large discrepancy in the percentage of sworn [officers] that are vaccinated, and what you and APD have thought about to try and shift those numbers further in a direction to try and prevent further losses of life?”
Randall said, “Police agencies across the country are generally vaccinated at a less robust rate than fire and EMS, and I think that some of that has to do with the fact that fire and EMS are more considered medical providers.”
He said their breakthrough infection rate was under 2%, likely due to the fact their vaccination rate was lower. He explained most of their infections since March 1 were in unvaccinated employees.
“That’s absolutely true of our two recent fatalities,” he said, of the two APD officers who passed away after battling the coronavirus.
Randall said they have not changed any official department policies in regards to COVID-19, but instead, they relied on updated “training bulletins” officers and employees must follow.
Following those two deaths of Austin Police officers in the same week, the department made some changes to reduce some officer contact with the public. Lower priority calls are now being handled online and by 311, rather than an officer responding in-person. APD’s main headquarters building is also now restricted.
However, as of an updated training bulletin in the spring, APD representatives explained officers are only required to wear PPE when they are on a call where someone present has tested positive for COVID-19.
Randall pointed to the “tension” between the county and state directives about mask mandates as part of the reason for the change.
“I think it actually raises a reasonable question about some of the Austin peace officers and whether they are keeping Austin safe,” Commissioner Rebecca Bernhardt said. “I really think it’s quite ridiculous they don’t have to wear masks with every encounter with the public, particularly if only 50% of Austin police officers are vaccinated. I’m just going to put that out there; I understand the governor disagrees.”