Faculty and staff at the University’s School of Public Health sent an open letter Jan. 14 to the Providence City Council in favor of a vaccine mandate for city employees. The letter, which was signed by over 30 faculty and staff, opposed a City Council ordinance seeking to place limitations on the firing of unvaccinated employees.
The ordinance was referred to the finance committee following an emergency meeting on Jan. 14. The ordinance would require City Council approval for the Mayor to fire more than 2% of employees in any public safety department or 20% in other city departments. Critics say the measure is designed to exempt unvaccinated police officers from the city’s mandate.
According to its authors, the letter was intended to raise awareness about the ordinance and use the School of Public Health’s standing to pressure the City Council members who planned to vote for it.
“We released it publicly for a reason,” said Abdullah Shihipar, a research assistant at the School of Public Health, who wrote much of the letter’s first draft. Shihipar said the letter made it clear to the council members voting for the ordinance that they were going against the advice of Providence’s public health community.
“The important thing is getting the public to know that (the ordinance) is going on,” said Jackie Goldman, a project manager at the School of Public Health.
Goldman said that the letter was part of a collaborative “rapid response” which began after they first heard about the city council ordinance on Jan 12.
The People, Place and Health Collective, based in the Department of Epidemiology, tweeted on the day the ordinance was announced: “Vaccination is required for a reason and city council should acknowledge that fact.” Both Shihipar and Goldman work at The Collective.
The letter, released two days later, highlighted the successful vaccine mandate employed by United Airlines and asked that the city act as a model for its citizens by having its employees get vaccinated. “Carving out an exception for some city employees puts the public’s safety at risk,” it explained.
“We are public health experts and so to see something that was such a blatant attempt (to go) against everything that public health really believes in…it felt appropriate for us to make a statement.”
City Council President John Igliozzi, one of the ordinance’s sponsors, said that the legislation is about having a management plan for city workers like police officers, as opposed to an exemption from the mandate. According to WPRI, 13% of Providence police officers remain unvaccinated as of Tuesday, and those not vaccinated by Feb. 8 will receive a written warning.
“All the ordinance says is if the Mayor plans on doing a mass termination of any division in city government, he just needs to have a plan to explain what happens (next),” said Igliozzi. Although the ordinance has not passed, Igliozzi said that his efforts have been successful thus far, as no city employees were fired by Mayor Elorza’s Jan. 14 deadline.
“We forced the parties to come to the table to negotiate a rational, reasonable outcome in order to achieve both goals,” said Igliozzi. He said that the ordinance, however, could be brought up for a vote again if the Mayor were to consider a “mass firing” once more, and cited concerns for public safety.
“If a significant number of police officers are fired, lawlessness would take hold,” said Igliozzi in a statement on Jan. 12.
Neither Goldman nor Shihipar believe the mandate would lead to mass firings.
Shihipar said it’s particularly important that police officers get vaccinated since they interact with “the most vulnerable people in the city,” such as houseless people and people who use drugs.
The Mayor’s office said in a statement on Jan. 12 that at least 21 police officers had gotten their first COVID-19 shot since the policy was announced in late December. On Tuesday, WPRI reported that 57 Providence Police officers remained unvaccinated, down from around 80 earlier this month.
Nevertheless, the letter’s authors say that the mandate has to be accompanied by access to opportunities to get vaccinated.
“(The mandate is) one lever that we have, but it can’t be the only lever we have,” said Shihipar. “I still think that we need to, even at this point, be proactive with our outreach.”