Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced in August that all employees of the city government were required to report their vaccination status to the city by October 15th, 2021. Since then, the mandate has caused conflict between city hall and members of Chicago’s police union, the Fraternal Order of Police.
Juliette Kayyem is a Professor in International Security at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. She served in the Department of Homeland Security as President Obama’s Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs, where she held a critical leadership position in dealing with the H1N1 pandemic. In addition to her work in education and government, she has written extensively for the Atlantic and the Washington Post on issues of national security and crisis management.
The Gate spoke with Professor Kayyem over Zoom to discuss the impact of Chicago’s vaccine reporting mandate on the city.
The Gate: According to the most recent numbers out of the Chicago Police Department, 70% of officers have complied with the vaccine reporting mandate. Of the 30% who have not complied, roughly 25 officers have been stripped of their badges and are on no-pay status. You wrote recently in support of the rolling suspension tactic. Do you believe that it will ultimately compel officers to comply with the mandate?
Juliette Kayyem: I think overall the numbers are much better than the headlines. There's sort of a fascination with the holdouts, and I find the holdouts less interesting than we make them out to be. What the mandates did is they separated the lazy, the fickle, the disorganized, and those who needed a nudge from the true anti-vaxxers. I think we needed that distinction. There was no other way we were going to move these big numbers, and as it turns out, United Airlines, The Air Force, and the Pentagon have great numbers today.
Public safety is proving to be difficult, but less difficult than the headlines imply. Most jurisdictions are not having the same issues as Chicago. Some of it has to do with the police union and the union efforts. I think Chicago has such a crazy union head. A MAGA endorser, someone who's clearly running their political future off of the backs of unvaccinated police officers. But if history is any guide, the mandate will ultimately get officers to comply.
I think the issue will be what's the alternative, what option do we have, right? Do we really have an option of having police officers who, in Chicago's case, will neither vaccinate nor take tests during a pandemic? Part of the reason why you have to be forceful on mandates is because the cost is significant for not moving forward on mandates, and not just for society—do you want a police department to actually overrule a public health and a political entity? No, it scares me.
The Gate: The head of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) in Chicago, John Catanzara, launched his bid for mayor by piggybacking off of the holdout from reporting your vaccination status. He and others in the news are arguing that crime in the city of Chicago has not gotten any better recently. According to the most recent statistics from the Chicago Police Department comparing 2020 to the current year to date, arrests are down by 23% while crime complaints are only down by 2%. There's a concern that Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s priority should be keeping police officers on the streets. How would you make a decision about the cost at which you are enforcing the mandate, and how will it affect the rift that’s growing between City Hall and the FOP.
Juliette Kayyem: Would the rift not exist without the mandate? What we're seeing, at least in Chicago, is a sort of case study. This rift was probably likely to happen because the union has desires that fall far outside whatever this mandate debate is. But the reason why I've been so forceful with this “do not blink” attitude is that there's really no option to lose. What losing means is that you'd have a civilian law enforcement entity that appeared not to abide by the civilian political rules. So that's why I think you haven't seen many mayors fold. In fact, Chicago is not a traditional mandate. The mayor gave that out. That’s really important.
The Gate: It is a meaningful distinction. Chicago only has a vaccine reporting mandate so far.
Juliette Kayyem: Right, that's all. You can say no to the vaccine and just test to keep your job. So there's a bigger issue going on here. This is part of a larger picture about police and police management.
The Gate: Another question I had is about the role that social media plays in exacerbating vaccine hesitancy in the face of these new mandates. We've learned so much recently from the Facebook Files and other exposés. Do you think that we would have this same sort of holdout, or at least the same publicity stunts in relation to the holdouts, if social media didn't play such a big role?
Juliette Kayyem: No, I don't. There are two types of issues going on here. One is the glorification that these guys get by being outliers and posting the videos. But the other, and this has been the frustrating thing for me, is the glorification by the mainstream media of the holdouts. Can I have a story about the 98% of United Airlines employees who got vaccinated? They seem much more interesting to me, but we have a fascination with the holdouts. And so we tend to think that they are deeper than they are. While I was pushing for mandates before the White House, I was not originally at mandates. Initially you want things to be voluntary—it just makes life easier. But once we hit that wall, we definitely had to pivot. One of the things that was clear to me was that we had to take emotion out of the calculation. What I believed as a vaccinated person and what an unvaccinated person believed didn't matter anymore, and neither did my frustration at their motivations for not getting vaccinated. You just needed a rule and no emotions.
The Gate: The debate over vaccine mandates is often characterized as a moral battle between individual freedom and the common good. How do you make the decision to prioritize one value over another?
Juliette Kayyem: I made my decision because we hit a vaccination wall. I was looking at polling with the Kaiser Family Foundation, which showed that most of the unvaccinated weren't headstrong, they were just fickle. They just needed a nudge. That consistent polling, which showed that they would get vaccinated if deprived of a job or airline travel, suggested to me that we needed a deadline.
The Gate: What reasonable steps can mayors like Lori Lightfoot do to encourage vaccination and enforce current mandates beyond what has already been proposed?
Juliette Kayyem: This is going to be really interesting because we're going to hit different pockets. Part of it is going to be contingent on whether there is another surge. But we are entering a time in which the vaccinated are just clearly moving on. Over time that train, although maybe not with mandates, is going to keep moving. The ease by which we're living our life, including our health, will be too desirable to ignore. These holdouts are outlier incidents. That’s what I keep saying to people who are on Twitter too much. 80% of the eligible American public is vaccinated. We won. That's why I keep saying, don't look at those people on Twitter, they're just too noisy.
The Gate: Do you think that the hesitancy over a vaccine mandate as it's played out in the U.S. is a uniquely American problem? Or do you just look at other countries that are facing similar issues and see that it's universal?
Juliette Kayyem: I think it's uniquely American. Look at Portugal; we don't often think of Portugal as efficient. They had a Vice Admiral take charge of the vaccination program, and separated it from politics, not a politician to be seen. They have one of the highest rates in the EU.
Here's an interesting example to answer whether it is a uniquely American problem. Puerto Rico has the highest vaccination rate of any U.S. state or territory. How did it get there? We don’t think of Puerto Rico as efficient either. It has a very difficult infrastructure and supply chain. The interesting thing about Puerto Rico that I tweeted out recently is its political divide is not Democrat-GOP. Its political divide is commonwealth versus statehood status. So they were able to take vaccinations out of partisan politics because their big divide is different. Both Puerto Rican parties agreed that vaccines are better than no vaccines, and look where they are. It's unbelievable. That's a sign that politics have hindered the vaccination plan.
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