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New York City braces for first responder shortage as thousands of front line city employees remain unvaccinated after deadline

Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Global Citizen

Under the terms of New York City's vaccine mandate, all city employees — including police and firefighters — were required to be vaccinated by this Friday at 5 p.m., or lose their jobs. As of Wednesday, the New York City Fire Department announced that only 65% of their force had been vaccinated, leading the department to predict that as many as 20% of all fire companies and 20% of all ambulances would have to be pulled out of service. New York Police Department and Sanitation Department were also expected to be hard hit by the mandate, leading many to predict a crisis pertaining to essential government services.

While the city was able achieve some measure of success getting first responders to comply with the mandate over the course of this week, an ABC News report estimates that as of Saturday morning, as many as 26,000 city employees remain unvaccinated, meaning that only 83% of the city's workforce met the Friday deadline.

Police Commissioner Dermot Shea announced that 1,000 officers got their first shot on Thursday, and another 1,000 got their first shot on Friday, meaning that 16% of the police force remains unvaccinated. While the Fire Department also announced a significant number of vaccinations in the last half of the week, only 72% of New York's firefighters met the deadline, along with 84% of EMS workers.

Still, while New Yorkers have had an anxious week worrying about the effects of losing a significant portion of first responders in a city already beset by high crime rates. While violent crime was lower during the summer of 2021 than it was during the chaotic summer of 2020, it remains significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels.

City leaders, however, downplayed the dangers of losing as much as 1/6th of the city's police force and over a quarter of its firefighters. "We will move resources around. We have had significant increase in people getting vaccinated in the past three days, and that's the good news. The contingencies are there. New Yorkers should not, should not, be worried about this," insisted Commissioner Shea.

The Fire Department, meanwhile, has not only faced lagging vaccination rates, but a suspected "sick out" by union members who were angry about the mandate. Fire Chief Daniel Nigro blasted firefighters who apparently called out en masse on Friday, saying, "The excessive sick leave by a group of our Firefighters because of their anger at the vaccine mandate for all city employees is unacceptable, contrary to their oaths to serve, and may endanger the lives of New Yorkers." Meanwhile, Uniformed Firefighters Association President Andrew Ansbro insisted that there was not a sick out, but rather that it was likely that many firefighters were suffering from side effects of having received the vaccine.

Nigro promised that, in spite of the high sick leave and the impact of the vaccine mandate, "[T]he Department will continue to respond to all calls for help that come our way."

Any city employees who remained unvaccinated after the Friday deadline have been placed on unpaid leave.

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