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EDITORIAL

To ‘serve and protect’ means getting the vaccine

Public safety unions should be ashamed for pushing back on the Boston vaccine mandate.

Police Sergeant Shana Cottone (center) protested Boston's new vaccine mandate at City Hall on Dec. 20.JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

That members of Boston’s public safety apparatus would put themselves — and the public — at risk by fighting for the right not to be vaccinated against COVID-19 during a deadly surge is, in a word, shameful.

There is no high-minded matter of principle at stake in the suit filed last week by three unions representing police and firefighters seeking to halt the city’s vaccine mandate, but rather a kind of “you can’t do that to us” bravado.

As the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, one of the parties to the suit, said in a statement of rare candor, “This lawsuit is not about science or politics, this is simply about making sure we hold our elected leaders to their word, our members are treated fairly, and our labor rights are respected.”

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Mayor Michelle Wu issued the mandate last month requiring all city workers to have their first vaccine dose by Jan. 15 and their second by Feb. 15, unless they receive a medical or religious exemption. It was a sensible, scientifically grounded decision, and the Supreme Court recognized more than a century ago that governments can mandate vaccines. The city policy follows on the heels of a similar directive issued earlier by Governor Charlie Baker for state employees, including members of the State Police.

But in Boston, an interim directive issued last year by Acting Mayor Kim Janey has added to the pandemic-related controversy, and the three unions involved in the current suit, Boston Firefighters Local 718 and the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society in addition to the Superior Officers Federation, have decided they prefer the Janey policy — the new administration’s directive notwithstanding.

“Local 718 has consistently supported the City’s efforts to maintain safety for employees and the public through this pandemic,” the firefighters union said in a statement. “However, Local 718 has also consistently maintained that any policy related to vaccinations as a condition of employment must be negotiated with the union. To that end, Local 718 and the City worked out an agreement several months ago that allows fire fighters who are uncomfortable receiving a vaccine to choose a regular testing option.”

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“Uncomfortable!” What a curious choice of words when talking about a disease that has claimed the lives of more than 20,000 people in this state, sickened more than a million, and last week alone added nearly 80,000 more to the list of confirmed cases. The unvaccinated disproportionately crowd hospitals around the state and intensive care units; they are far more likely to get infected and spread COVID-19. The virus will continue to take lives until those who can be vaccinated are — especially those, like police officers and firefighters, who frequently interact with members of the community. You’d think first responders would be among the first to acknowledge that.

And what about the fraternal ethos of firefighters, who spend much of their time living in close quarters — congregate housing of the firehouse variety? Is there no thought to the safety of colleagues?

Testing should indeed be part of the protocol for public safety employees, but in addition to, not instead of, vaccinations — as it has become for civilians now waiting in long lines for tests while concerns grow about breakthrough infections.

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It’s not as if Wu is demanding any more from the city’s own workforce than is now expected from city residents — and visitors — who want to enter a restaurant or a gym or a concert hall or museum. If there’s any silver lining to the suit, it’s that it gives the courts an opportunity to definitely quash the idea that collective bargaining somehow supersedes public safety in the midst of a historically unprecedented crisis.

There is also a more dangerous and fringy subset of this anti-vaccination madness — one that goes beyond the cynical play for collective bargaining advantage at the heart of the union lawsuit.

Boston First Responders United, which claims to have some 250 members among the city’s police, fire, and EMS corps, has a more ideological bent, noting on its website, “BFRU rejects the notion that ones [sic] ability to live free and prosper in the U.S. is conditional on subjecting ones [sic] body to unwanted medical treatment or vaccine injections through government strong-arming and overreach.”

In an e-mail obtained by the Globe, the group has urged its members to file for religious exemptions on the morning before the vaccination deadline.

“Document dump means everyone submits their religious exemptions at the same time on the same day,” they wrote. “This is at the advice of our Attorney. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT.”

Their website is the usual collection of anti-vax half-truths and propaganda now linked to a similar New York effort — Bravest for Choice — and in turn sharing a vile anti-vax video posted by German right-wing politician Christine Anderson.

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It has come to this: Boston, a bastion of science and technology, of first-rate medical institutions and research, subject to Internet garbage.

The Wu administration has adopted a sensible policy that is designed to protect this city from the ravages of a virus that has been unrelenting. For those who swore an oath to serve and protect, that vow now includes being vaccinated.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.