Thirty percent of the Massachusetts State Police, totaling nearly 850 members in all, have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 at department-run clinics, reflecting a potential hesitancy that has lingered even among front-line law enforcement who interact with the public.
The data among some State Police personnel stands in contrast to the acceptance of vaccines among the Massachusetts public, where shot-seekers have faced fierce competition as they join the state’s eligibility pool. Police, firefighters, and other emergency personnel were among the first to be made eligible, getting clearance to be vaccinated two months ago. Educators and school staff became eligible Thursday.
Although the Baker administration has rejected calls for teacher-specific clinics, arguing it could divert doses from other needy populations amid a tight supply, the state created three State Police vaccination sites for troopers and other first responders during the earlier stage of the rollout.
As of Friday, 2,002 of 2,847 eligible State Police employees, including civilians, had received at least one dose at one of the department clinics in Framingham, Plymouth, or Chicopee, according to data released in response to a Boston Globe request.
State officials cautioned that some of the 845 others could have sought vaccinations at other off-site facilities for first responders or declined to be vaccinated because of medical conditions, though it was unclear how many have. David Procopio, a State Police spokesman, said department officials “know that some” were vaccinated elsewhere, but he said he didn’t have an exact number.
“Police officers in general, particularly today with all the scrutiny on them, I think they’re very skeptical of just about everything,” said Dennis Galvin, a retired State Police major and president of the Massachusetts Association for Professional Law Enforcement, a group of current and retired law enforcement and criminal justice advocates. Galvin said he is personally scheduled to receive his first dose Tuesday.
“These are divided times — politically, socially. This is a place to take a measure of how many people have faith and confidence,” he said of the vaccine. “I think the State Police are reflecting that. They reflect a general concern and hesitancy about it.”
Union officials who represent state troopers and sergeants said they do not track vaccination rates among their members, and indicated Monday they’ve largely taken a hands-off approach. Nancy Sterling, a spokeswoman for the State Police Association of Massachusetts, said the only guidance the union has given its 1,900 members was to consult with their personal physicians.
Vaccines are not mandatory for state law enforcement or any other group in Massachusetts.
“We don’t know if there is any hesitancy. There certainly could be. It’s not something we’re asking about,” Sterling said.
Still, Michael F. Cherven, who was elected association president in February, was “pleased to see the fairly high number” of personnel being vaccinated at State Police clinics, Sterling said.
Most of the Massachusetts public has indicated it’s willing to get a shot. About 21 percent of residents surveyed in a UMass Amherst/WCVB poll this month said they would probably or definitely not get vaccinated, though it was slightly higher — 24 percent — among men. Nearly a quarter of all Massachusetts residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
The reasons people choose not to be inoculated can run the gamut, from concern about the vaccines’ long-term effects to a desire to not rush to be among the first to receive it. Many of those who said in the UMass Amherst/WCVB poll that they were wary of getting a shot explained that they didn’t trust that it was safe or effective.
The state has put $2.5 million behind a public awareness campaign aimed at addressing vaccine hesitancy, particularly among residents of color after the state’s own survey found stark differences among racial groups.
The State Police force itself is 95 percent male and 88 percent white.
Dr. David Hamer, an infectious disease expert at Boston University and a physician at Boston Medical Center, said the vaccine uptake among state troopers is especially important because of their close encounters with the public.
“It would be ideal for that population to be vaccinated, both for their protection but also for the protection of people that they interact with,” Hamer said. Plus, he said, any hesitancy among essential workers or other people currently eligible for vaccination could impact public perception of the vaccines’ safety.
“I think if word spreads that a substantial proportion of people in the early phases of vaccine eligibility are concerned or otherwise hesitant about receiving the vaccine, that could have negative implications,” he said. “Others might say, ‘Well, if they’re worried, maybe I should be worried, too.’”
The Baker administration allowed first responders to be vaccinated starting Jan. 11 as part of the early wave of the state’s rollout.
At the time, Governor Charlie Baker emphasized the importance of vaccinating the state’s roughly 45,000 front-line law enforcement, EMTs, and firefighters, given they “work in risky situations every day.” Officials said State Police Colonel Christopher Mason also appeared in a video message produced by the administration encouraging first responders to get vaccinated.
But even at the State Police headquarters clinic, officials found that some first responders did not show for their appointments and other slots went unfilled. Officials later offered hundreds of residents shots at the site, which was not open to the wider public, arguing that the doses would otherwise be wasted, the Globe previously reported.
Officials have not identified any of the 292 civilians who were vaccinated across three days at the State Police headquarters, beyond saying they either were over the age of 75 or personal care attendants, all of whom were eligible to receive a shot.
Baker later said his administration would not repeat “that sort of behavior in the future,” adding: “We continue to learn the right way to do a number of things. And that’s one more.”
State Police aren’t the only public safety personnel who have shown reluctance to get vaccinated. As of last week, more than half of the employees in the state’s Department of Correction have refused the state’s offer to get the COVID-19 vaccine at work, even as infections have raced through the state’s prisons and jails.
The rejection rate is even higher in the Bristol County sheriff’s office, where 66 percent of staff have refused, according to data.
Similar to State Police, state prison officials told the Globe last month the refusal figures among its staff don’t provide the full picture because the count includes workers who opted to get their shots at off-site facilities.
About 70 percent of inmates at DOC facilities have received at least one dose, data show.