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Experts question the science of police union’s challenge to Allegheny County’s vaccine mandate

Allegheny County Police Department

Medical experts say a complaint filed last week by the union representing Allegheny County’s police force is full of false statements and gross misinterpretations of data.

The Allegheny County Police Association is challenging the county’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees. Anyone not fully vaccinated by Dec. 1 faces termination. According to the filing, 23% of union members, 47 officers, are not vaccinated.

“We anticipated that there would be challenges to the vaccine requirement for county employees, but we still think it’s the right thing to do,” said county spokeswoman Amie Downs.

WESA emailed the union’s attorney Ronald R. Retsch on Tuesday to request a comment but did not receive a response.

In addition to legal arguments about whether such a mandate is an infringement of an individual’s constitutional liberties, the complaint includes extensive reasoning against the necessity, safety, and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines.

Of the filing, Duquesne University’s Bridget Calhoun, an associate professor specializing in public health and infectious disease, said, “It appeared to me that there was somewhat of a lack of acknowledgment of the effect of the pandemic in the country and the number of lives that are lost.”

In 2020, COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death. And recently released data from the Officer Down Memorial Fund show that since the start of the pandemic, more law enforcement officers have died from COVID-19 than every other cause combined. Among these fatalities is a Pittsburgh police officer who died last month.

Part of the union’s filing argues that the vaccines don’t prevent coronavirus infections or transmission, and therefore provide ineffective immunity to officers or the public.

Technically, it’s true that the COVID-19 vaccines don’t prevent infection. The way all vaccines function is they stimulate the immune system so when a virus enters the body it’s recognized and attacked.

But compared to unvaccinated people, Calhoun and others say those who are vaccinated are far less likely to ever notice they’ve been exposed to COVID-19, let alone become sick or spread the virus to others.

Experts also disputed the union’s claim that a vaccinated police force presents no benefit to the general public since the vaccine isn’t 100% effective.

It’s “equivalent to saying there’s no benefit to having a police force” since the police “don’t stop 100% of all crimes,” remarked Matt Ferrari, director of Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics.

Calhoun notes that law enforcement officials frequently interact with members of the community, sometimes coming into close contact during an arrest or while performing CPR. Therefore their potential to spread the virus is significant.

For this reason, Pittsburgh-based infectious disease physician Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, believes that an officer’s decision to go unvaccinated, “really questions their professionalism and their commitment to public safety.” Adalja also noted the county’s interest in keeping its workforce healthy.

Throughout the complaint, the union argues that officers who have recovered from COVID-19 do not need to be vaccinated. As proof, it cites a study from Israel that finds that immunity acquired through prior infection provides greater protection than the Pfizer vaccine.

An important caveat is this paper has yet to be peer-reviewed; that’s the process in which other researchers evaluate the study and its findings to ensure rigor and quality before publication in a journal.

Adalja does think it might make sense to have a different policy for officers who have recovered from COVID-19, such as only requiring this group to get a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. However, the immune response can range widely from one infected person to another.

“That’s because some people have really mild infections. Some people got exposed just a little bit [and] didn’t get a full infection,” said Ferrari, who noted that vaccination ensures that a person’s antibodies levels are more robust.

The complaint also tried to frame data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) as indicating that thousands of people possibly have died or dealt with significant health issues after vaccination. People self-report into VAERS, the simple existence of a case does not mean it was caused by a COVID-19 vaccine. Rather, the system’s purpose is to help public health officials identify potential concerns.

It’s important not to infer cause and effect with VAERS said, Calhoun. She recalled a mother she once knew who had missed a pediatrician appointment for vaccinations, but later that day, the mother’s 18-month-old child had a febrile seizure.

“Imagine if she had made it to that appointment … how that mother would forever question whether, or to what extent possibly even blame the vaccine,” said Calhoun.

Ferrari acknowledges that all of the union’s arguments contain a “nugget of truth,” so he urged people to not think in absolutes but rather consider all the risks and benefits of remaining unvaccinated.

“There are real risks associated with COVID,” he said. “At this point, the risks associated with COVID are demonstrably higher, and it’s just as simple as that."

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.