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More than 500 SDPD employees have filed requests to be exempt from COVID vaccinations

Milan Kovacevic
The San Diego Police Department headquarters is shown in this updated photo.

Nearly 1,100 city of San Diego employees have so far filed requests to be exempt from the city’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement — and more than half of those requests have come from San Diego Police Department (SDPD) employees, according to city records reviewed by KPBS.

As of Wednesday, the city had received 525 exemption requests from the SDPD, which accounts for more than 20% of the department’s workforce, the records show. Other city departments with high numbers of requests include fire, transportation, storm water and environmental services. Those departments, including the police, account for nearly 75% of all requests, the records show.

RELATED: Dozens of city employees receive advance firing notices over vaccine mandates

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The numbers are particularly concerning to public health experts because employees of these departments have the most frequent interactions with the public, especially the police. And people don’t always have a choice about whether they come in close contact with police officers, said Rebecca Fielding-Miller, an epidemiologist at UC San Diego.

“It’s not like you can just walk away from a police officer if you don’t feel safe,” she said. “If it's mandatory that you have to spend time with somebody face to face, then that other person should have to be vaccinated because it's an airborne infectious disease.”

The police and fire unions did not return requests for comment.

The city will review each exemption request on a case-by-case basis and may reach out to employees for additional information, said spokeswoman Nicole Darling.

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“It involves human resources reviewing the employees’ written submissions as well as communications with the employee to really determine the employee’s circumstances and appropriate potential accommodations,” Darling said.

Employees could either request medical or religious exemptions, but the bulk — almost 96% — filed religious exemptions. The medical exemptions require the employee to fill out a three-page questionnaire about their health condition and have a health care professional fill out a “Reasonable Accommodation Medical Documentation Form.”

The religious exemptions require the employee to identify their religion or belief system and then describe the specific tenet, belief or practice that conflicts with the city’s vaccination requirement. And if an employee has received other vaccinations — like tetanus shots, flu shots or childhood vaccinations — the form asks them to explain how their religious beliefs prevent them from getting the COVID vaccine but not the others.

No additional information is required, but the form says the city may follow up with the employee for “additional supporting information and documentation.”

So far, none of the requests have been approved or denied, Darling said. This week, 86 city employees who did not get vaccinated and did not submit requests for exemptions were sent advance notices of termination. Those employees will then go through a hearing with the city, where employees will have a right to legal representation and representation from their employee organization, Darling said.

RELATED: Staffing shortages challenging San Diego Fire-Rescue

More than 500 SDPD employees have filed requests to be exempt from COVID vaccinations

The departments with the lowest percentage of vaccinated employees are police with 77%, fire with 83%, transportation with 84%, and parks and recreation and environmental services, both with 86%.

This week, nearly 200 SDPD employees had to isolate or quarantine because of COVID-19 exposure and the fire department announced that so many of its employees were in isolation due to testing positive for COVID-19 that it had to implement emergency staffing procedures and shut down multiple units each day.

“I don't want fire stations to be having essentially rolling blackouts because so many people are infected that our ability to respond to emergencies is hampered,” Fielding-Miller said. “You can't do your job if you are isolated. And the more people who aren't vaccinated, the more COVID is going to be in that social network.”