Despite getting early access to COVID-19 vaccines, inoculation rates among local law enforcement agencies fall below the average in Santa Clara County: Only 60% of Palo Alto Police Department personnel said they're fully vaccinated, trailing well behind Mountain View police and the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office, according to data collected by the county in June.
The situation is reversed when it comes to local fire departments, where Palo Alto reports nearly universal vaccination and Mountain View is above average at 88%.
The city of Palo Alto reports that nearly all of its fire department staff, 97.5%, have been vaccinated as of last month, well above the countywide average of 76.6%.
But the high inoculation rates do not extend to other first responders, notably police and sheriff's deputies working in county jails. Only 60% of Palo Alto police officers report that they have been fully vaccinated as of June 18, according to a department survey, while 24% declined to state their vaccination status, 10% did not respond and 6% said they were not vaccinated.
The Mountain View Police Department fares better with a vaccination rate of 84% as of July 22, a large increase over its rate of 73% at the end of June.
First responders have had access to the COVID-19 vaccine since January of this year — long before most adults were eligible — because of the nature of the job and the necessary contact with members of the public. But it also means there has been ample time to book an appointment, raising questions over the holdouts. Government agencies in Santa Clara County are required to ascertain the vaccination rates of its employees, though some elected to track vaccination rates before it was mandatory.
The Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office reports that 68% of its personnel have received at least one dose of the vaccine as of June 18, a marked improvement over the 53% rate from March this year. Sheriff's department officials say there has been a concerted effort to encourage employees to get vaccinated, including town hall meetings and videos demystifying the COVID-19 vaccine and dispelling myths and rumors about its side effects.
Despite touting a vaccination rate above much of California and the country, Santa Clara County is still pushing to increase the vaccination rate among county residents, raising concerns that the delta variant and other highly contagious strains of COVID-19 still pose a serious public health risk.
New COVID-19 cases have increased to an average of 76 per day over the last week, around the same rate of transmission as experienced in late April.
Those higher case rates come as vaccination rates are trending downward fast. In the first half of July, the county tracked an average of 2,776 vaccines per day, down from an average of 6,619 per day over the course of June. And of the vaccinations in July, the large majority were appointments for second shots — suggesting that few new residents are looking to get inoculated.
So what's causing the vaccine hesitancy? Surveys conducted by the firm EMC Research found that unvaccinated county residents are worried about side effects and concerned that there hasn't been enough research to ensure the COVID-19 vaccine is safe. Vaccination rates among men between the ages of 18 and 44 are the lowest at 62%, followed by women of the same age at 69%. Fewer Latino residents have received the vaccine (68%) than white residents (80%), Southeast Asians (76%) and East Asians (75%).
Vaccination rates also appear to have a partisan slant: 84% of those who identified as Democrats have received the vaccine, compared to 62% of Republicans. Of those who identified as Republicans, 26% said they were "resistant" to vaccination, meaning they would either refuse to get it unless required or would refuse under any circumstance.
Last month, researchers for the county held focus groups to dig deeper and find out why so many are declining to get vaccinated. Riley Jones, director for EMC Research, said many of the participants felt the pandemic has been overblown and are "over it," and just want things to go back to normal. They don't believe they are personally at risk of severe illness, and that the need to protect the community at large was not a compelling argument.
"The motivation to get vaccinated is severely diminished because they really don't think they need it," Jones said at a June 22 meeting. "They don't think they're at risk."
The focus groups resented the idea of a vaccine passport and were not persuaded by lotteries and other incentive-based programs. Riley said the young Latino men they interviewed were fearful that the vaccine could give them COVID-19, and worried about unfounded rumors that could make recipients sterile or weaker, and could lead to miscarriages or even death.