Coronavirus

Citing Low HPD & Fire Department COVID Vaccinations, Turner Considers City Worker Mandate

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and HPD Chief Troy Finner might be talking about a city employee vaccine mandate soon.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and HPD Chief Troy Finner might be talking about a city employee vaccine mandate soon. Screenshot
Given anecdotal reports that only 50 percent or fewer of Houston Police Department and Houston Fire Department employees have taken a COVID-19 vaccine, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is considering issuing a vaccine mandate for city employees, Turner's communications director has told the Houston Press.

When answering a question about tracking vaccinations among HPD employees, Mary Benton, Turner’s Director of Communications, told the Press in a statement Thursday that “Neither the Houston Police nor Houston Fire Department tracks the number of their employees who are vaccinated. Anecdotally, it is believed to be at or below 50 percent.”

“For health and safety reasons, Mayor Turner has not ruled out a vaccine mandate for all city employees,” she continued.

“Neither the Houston Police nor Houston Fire Department tracks the number of their employees who are vaccinated. Anecdotally, it is believed to be at or below 50 percent. For health and safety reasons, Mayor Turner has not ruled out a vaccine mandate for all city employees.” Mary Benton, Communications Director for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner

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“As the Delta variant spreads through our community and overwhelms local hospitals, Mayor Turner strongly encourages all city of Houston employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The mayor requires all employees to wear face masks at work, especially where they cannot socially distance,” Benton said.


Benton’s confirmation that Turner is still open to a city employee vaccine mandate comes just over a week after Turner hinted during a City Council meeting that he was considering issuing such an order. “I’ve got city employees, for example, who haven’t gotten vaccinated. I will tell you, in short order they will.” Turner said August 25.

HPD Public Information Officer Jodi Silva said to the Press that the department does not track how many officers and other employees have been vaccinated against COVID-19. “We actually are not tracking on who or what percentage [of employees] have been vaccinated, since it’s voluntary.”

“People are encouraged to get it. However, that’s where it ends. You don’t have to report it, nobody’s asking,” she said.

“People are encouraged to get it. However, that’s where it ends. You don’t have to report it, nobody’s asking.” - Jodi Silva, Houston Police Department Public Information Officer

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Jason Spencer, Public Affairs Director for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, similarly confirmed that the county sheriff’s office isn’t tracking officer or employee vaccinations.

“Unfortunately, we have no reliable way of tracking vaccination rates among our employees,” Spencer told the Press in a statement. “We have hosted several employee vaccination events throughout the agency, and we have conducted internal educational campaigns to encourage vaccination.”

Multiple representatives from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo's office did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Press on HCSO’s policy not to track employee vaccinations.

Many Houstonians and Harris County residents may be surprised that their local law enforcement agencies aren’t keeping an official tally of how many of their employees have received a COVID-19 vaccine, especially given that many of those workers are rank-and-file officers interacting with potentially vulnerable members of the public on a daily basis.

But if the anecdotal HPD vaccination rate of 50 percent or less quoted by Benton is accurate, Houston would join the ranks of other major American cities where any given adult resident is more likely to be protected by a COVID-19 vaccination than the police officers working in those communities.

According to The Guardian, the Los Angeles Police Department reported that as of June 8, 51.8 percent of its employees were either fully or partially vaccinated, compared to the 65 percent of eligible Los Angeles residents (those 12 and older) who’d taken at least one coronavirus vaccine dose at the time.

Over on the eastern seaboard, a CNN report found that 47 percent of New York Police Department ‘s employees had taken one vaccine dose and 44 percent were fully vaccinated as of August 23, much lower than the 77.3 percent of New York City residents 18 and older who’d received at least one dose and the 70.1 percent of adult Big Apple inhabitants who were fully vaccinated as of September 2.

click to enlarge If it's true that 50 percent or fewer of HPD employees have been vaccinated, they're lagging behind eligible Houstonians. - SCREENSHOT
If it's true that 50 percent or fewer of HPD employees have been vaccinated, they're lagging behind eligible Houstonians.
Screenshot
As of August 29, the Houston Health Department reported that 59.5 percent of eligible Houstonians 12 and up had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and 72.6 percent of eligible Houstonians had taken their first dose of either the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Out of Houstonians 18 and older, 74.2 percent had taken at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, while 61.6 percent of them had been fully vaccinated.

Gov. Greg Abbott has vocally opposed vaccine mandates from government agencies, and has issued multiple executive orders forbidding them. Just hours after Turner made his comment about vaccines during the August 25 City Council meeting, Abbott issued a new executive order that stated “No governmental entity can compel any individual to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.” That order made sure to explicitly say it covered all coronavirus vaccines “regardless of regulatory status.”

It’s an important distinction given that Pfizer’s vaccine has received full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A previous Abbott order only forbade government bodies from mandating vaccines under emergency-use authorization. He issued his most recent order just days after the Pfizer vaccine was fully approved by the FDA in an obvious attempt to close what some viewed as a potential loophole for fully approved vaccines.

Even given Abbott’s latest order, Turner is clearly still weighing whether or not to challenge the governor and mandate vaccinations for city employees. Turner has already flouted another executive order of Abbott’s that forbids government mask requirements by issuing a mask mandate for city employees in early August.

Turner and the city haven’t faced retaliation or a legal challenge from the state over that particular issue — so far.
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Schaefer Edwards is a staff writer at the Houston Press who covers local and regional news. A lifelong Texan and adopted Houstonian, he loves NBA basketball and devouring Tex-Mex while his cat watches in envy.
Contact: Schaefer Edwards