‘My body, my choice’: Why some vaccine mandate objectors in police and fire ranks are willing to lose jobs rather than get the shot

CHICAGO — During the height of the first coronavirus wave, Chicago police Officer James Murray found himself standing guard on the front porches of sick residents, trying to reassure anxious relatives desperate to see their loved ones while paramedics tended to them.

He lost a friend in the Police Department to COVID-19 around the same time. Later on, he said, he also contracted the virus.

But a year later and with the advent of three coronavirus vaccines in the U.S., Murray has refused to get the shot, which health officials say overwhelmingly saves lives in a pandemic that has killed more than 700,000 Americans. He is also one of more than 70 Chicago Police Department employees who’ve been sent home without pay for disobeying the city’s reporting requirement.

Murray said he didn’t report his vaccination status because he feels upset that the city “forced” the policy on officers rather than negotiate with the union.

“First of all, I want to say I’m not like a conspiracy theorist,” Murray said. “I am a rule follower, believe it or not. This rule that I didn’t follow is extremely rare.”

Under Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s directive, all city employees had until Oct. 15 to report their vaccination status but could choose to undergo regular COVID-19 testing, rather than get shots, through the end of the year. After police unions challenged the vaccine mandate in court, though, a judge suspended the Dec. 31 date for members to be fully inoculated, saying that needed to go through arbitration. Other unions representing city workers are also now seeking the same.

Since the Oct. 15 deadline passed, 73 Chicago police employees and 67 Chicago Fire Department staffers have been placed on no-pay status and sent home for refusing the fill out the city portal with their vaccination status. But many later complied and, as of Friday, 35 police and 26 Fire Department workers were on no-pay status.

Murray’s defiance encapsulates a growing rift between Lightfoot and a swath of first responders over her COVID-19 vaccination policy. He and others who spoke to the Tribune said their refusal to comply has been misunderstood by critics who cast them as selfish when they have faced daily risks on the front lines of the pandemic.

Nearly all of them also say they have gotten COVID-19 themselves and are willing to be tested in lieu of vaccination, but they question the efficacy of the shot with arguments that public health officials have rejected and characterized Lightfoot’s directive as government overreach. For them, standing up against the policy is worth the punishment, even if for some it means losing their job — and the result could spell prolonged headaches for city officials anxious to stem the spread of the virus.

‘Morale is horrible’

Janet Contursi said she had difficulty breathing at the start of October when she was diagnosed with COVID-19. It was no surprise to her after a year and a half of exposure on the front lines of the pandemic as a Chicago firefighter-paramedic. But with the help of a doctor who treated her with monoclonal antibodies, she beat back her fatigue and fever.

Contursi, who is about to hit the mandatory retirement age, is one of about 130 Chicago firefighters and other city employees suing the city over Lightfoot’s vaccination policy. The 25-year Fire Department veteran said she will never get the shot and was placed on no-pay status for about 10 days before reporting her status through the city portal “under duress and coercion.”

Tensions among her fellow firefighters and paramedics have been flaring over the mandate, she said.

“It used to be the thing we would have issues with ... (were) North Siders and South Siders, or Cubs fans or Sox fans,” Contursi said. “Now the greatest division is vaxxed and unvaxxed. It really is heartbreaking. The morale is horrible.”

One Chicago police lieutenant, who spoke to the Tribune under condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution from his employer, declared, “I would sooner resign than be forced to get the vaccine.” He said he is no stranger to the dangers of COVID, having had the disease himself, but he doesn’t understand the firestorm of criticism over unvaccinated Police Department members like him after they waded through the unrest following George Floyd’s murder last year.

“Last year, when the riots were going on and the city’s burning, they were putting us 50 people deep on a CTA bus and driving us around,” the lieutenant said. “They made us work 12-hour days for 40 days straight, with no days off. That’s our job. That’s what we did. And people are now forgetting about that.”

When and if the time comes for the city to enforce its deadline, it will have to figure out how to handle those officers and other first responders who’d rather leave than be vaccinated.

As of Monday, 84% of Chicago police had reported their vaccination status on the city portal, including the lieutenant. But he is also among the 23% of respondents who indicated they are not fully vaccinated.

Meanwhile, the Fire Department was at a 97% response rate and, like police, about 23% of them said they aren’t completely inoculated. In total, more than 3,500 Chicago police and fire members have reported they’re not fully vaccinated, and more than 2,000 police employees and about 150 Fire Department staff members had not submitted their vaccine status to the city portal as of Monday. But hundreds of police and fire employees complied with the reporting requirement within the previous week.

A paramedic who reported her status and requested to be anonymous said she too is prepared to get fired over being unvaccinated. She repeated the mantra, “my body, my choice,” when explaining why.

“I was told what a hero I was 18 months ago, and what a great job we’re all doing, and ‘thank you for your service,’ ” the paramedic, who is a cancer survivor, said. “But now because I don’t want to put something in my body that I don’t feel I need, I can lose my job, my career, my livelihood, the only job I’ve ever known.”

Even some first responders who are vaccinated have their gripes — and are willing to walk away over it. High-ranking Fire Department member Carmelita Wiley-Earls said she had no trouble indicating she was vaccinated on the city portal, but she requested to be demoted from her position as deputy district chief to battalion chief after she had to place two firefighters on no-pay status.

Now, she’s considering retiring a year early, citing outrage over the city punishing those who are resistant to that order without providing what she described as adequate communication.

“They’ve just fought through a pandemic, civil unrest,” Wiley-Earls said of her colleagues. “This is the best damn Fire Department I know, period. They were good enough to do that. Now all of a sudden, they’re not good enough?”

‘No different than the gunfire’

The first responders who spoke with the Tribune about their vaccination refusal pointed to breakthrough COVID-19 cases, natural immunity from being infected and claims that the vaccine doesn’t stop people from spreading the virus.

But case data signals that vaccinated people do not in fact transmit coronavirus as much as those who are not inoculated, public health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady has said. That’s because to be contagious, someone must contract the disease, and unvaccinated Chicagoans are more than twice as likely as vaccinated ones to be diagnosed with COVID-19, according to city data. They are also five times as likely to be hospitalized with symptoms and seven times as likely to die.

Relying on natural immunity has also been condemned by local and national officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study in October that found recently infected people who were unvaccinated were five times more likely to get COVID-19 than those who were vaccinated and did not have a prior infection. Moreover, natural immunity wanes over some time.

In their pleas for cops to get vaccinated, Lightfoot and police Superintendent David Brown have invoked the four Chicago officers who have died of COVID-19. Nationwide, the coronavirus was the No. 1 cause of death among law enforcement killed in the line of duty last year, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.

“This virus is no different than the gunfire we take as cops,” Brown said in a news conference this month. “I will do everything I can, and I will say anything I need to, to convince officers to do everything they can to save their lives.”

But to hear FOP Lodge 7 president John Catanzara tell it, Lightfoot is violating the union’s collective bargaining rights by imposing a vaccine mandate, leading to a slippery slope of the city imposing other unilateral changes.

Many in the police union have championed Catanzara, as someone who speaks up for their rights, including in this latest dispute. Catanzara quit the Police Department Nov. 16, the day after a Chicago Police Board hearing on whether he should be fired for unrelated acts, including offensive social media posts.

However, Murray, the officer on no-pay status, is skeptical of how the union president has handled the situation even though he opposes Lightfoot’s policy.

“He’s too abrasive,” Murray said of Catanzara earlier this month. “I know I’m getting in trouble for this. But I think this guy wants to run for mayor or some other higher office and he’s using the FOP to do that.”

After abruptly announcing his retirement, Catanzara also again declared his candidacy for the 2023 mayoral election.

Some first responders who have fought against the city’s policy also later changed their minds. Another paramedic who declined to be named said she is vaccinated but refused to report her status on the city portal, leading to a temporary no-pay status. She later complied.

Still, she said she dislikes the vaccination mandate on principle and worries about the continued fraying of relations between city leadership and rank-and-file first responders.

“If we look back at this policy, it has the ability to crack the foundation of your front-line workers, police and fire,” she said.

For Lightfoot, the blame rests on figures such as Catanzara who she said is putting out a “counternarrative” that is playing with people’s lives.

“I do not want people to die in my city when there is a lifesaving, free, safe vaccine readily available,” Lightfoot said this month. “That makes no sense to me.”


(Chicago Tribune’s Jeremy Gorner contributed to this report.)