By Peter Szekely
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared his coronavirus vaccination order for emergency responders a success on Monday, with no disruption to city services, despite a sickout by some firefighters who officials said were protesting the mandate.
The mayor's Oct. 20 order, which police and firefighter union leaders said would cause staff shortages, led to an 11th-hour rush of inoculations that shrank the ranks of the unvaccinated as officials in the largest U.S. city began enforcing the mandate on Monday morning.
The vaccination rate for city's workforce of 378,000 employees, including teachers, corrections officers and other city workers who faced previous orders, rose to at least 91% over the weekend from 86% on Thursday, de Blasio said.
"Time and time again we put the mandates in place and they've worked," de Blasio, a Democrat, told a briefing.
Mandate disputes also have erupted in other cities as political leaders, including President Joe Biden, have sought to stem the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus.
In Cook County, Illinois, a judge on Monday temporary blocked Chicago from enforcing a vaccine mandate for police officers who are union members and ordered the case to arbitration.
New York City police and firefighter unions also have challenged the mandate. But the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York said courts last week rejected its requests for an emergency order to halt the mandate's enforcement.
The New York mandate prompted several thousand uniformed workers, including emergency medical services and sanitation employees, to get the required minimum first shot by the Friday afternoon deadline, and more than 3,500 others to do so over the weekend, de Blasio said.
That lifted vaccination rates to 85% for the New York Police Department, 88% for Emergency Medical Services, 83% for the Sanitation Department and 77% for firefighters, the mayor said.
Some 9,000 workers were placed on unpaid leave for failing to get immunized, while another 12,000 unvaccinated workers were getting paid while officials assessed their claims for medical or religious exemptions, which could take days, de Blasio said.
"We're not seeing disruptions to any city services," he added.
Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said 2,300 employees had called in sick on Monday, more than double the usual number.
"Since the mandate was issued, our medical leave spiked up," Nigro said at the briefing. "We know that's related to protests against the mandate. It's obvious."
Despite the sickout, which could lead to discipline, all of the city's fire houses were open on Monday, Nigro said.
Union officials, who said last week at least one-third of firefighters and police officers were unvaccinated, had predicted worker shortages as a result of the mandate, which eliminated a COVID-19 testing alternative that they said had worked well.
At a pre-dawn briefing, Uniformed Firefighters Association President Andrew Ansbro predicted that dozens of fire companies would shut because of staff shortages and urged the city to give his members more time to comply, NY1 TV reported.
Even so, Ansbro added, "this is not a city in crisis."
(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien; Editing by Peter Cooney, Peter Graff and Bill Berkrot)