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Chicago Public Library Workers Wonder Why They're Not At Higher Priority Level For COVID-19 Vaccine

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Chicago's public library workers are on the front lines every day.

But they say when it comes to pandemic protection, they're stuck at the back of the line. CBS 2 Political Investigator Dana Kozlov reported Tuesday night, they don't want to stand there any longer.

Chicago library branches have been open to the public since June. Librarians say they deal directly with the public every single day, which puts them at high risk for contracting COVID-19.

Dozens of them already have, in fact, contracted COVID-19. Thus, they are frustrated they are not in a higher vaccination category.

And now they're fighting to change that.

"It's been incredibly anxiety-producing," said one Chicago librarian.

The librarian was describing her job during the pandemic. It is a stress shared by many library staff.

"We have to tell patrons constantly to wear their masks appropriately," she said. "Yesterday, I told four people before I went to lunch, and three of them had their masks entirely off."

The librarian chose to hide her identity for fear she'll be fired for questioning why Chicago Public Library workers are not in the 1B COVID-19 vaccination category - despite Mayor Lori Lightfoot lumping them into that group less than a week ago.

"I named some of them - the frontline workers, grocery workers, sanitation workers, our librarians," Mayor Lightfoot said at that point.

Several Chicago aldermen, along with AFSCME - the union representing the library employees – are questioning the discrepancy and calling for librarians to be brought up in the line now.

"Looking at what other major cities have done – including even just our peer cities, like Evanston, for example; DuPage County – they've treated librarians as 1B," said Ald. Matt Martin (47th). "I think that's appropriate."

Martin and Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) are leading that charge. AFSCME also sent a letter to the former library commissioner, with a spokesperson emphasizing that 53 of Chicago's 900 library employees have already gotten COVID.

That amounts to 6% of the library workforce.

"At the end of the day, this lies in the hands of the Mayor's office," Sigcho-Lopez said. "The mayor can do this with executive power."

And if the vaccination group isn't changed, many librarians are calling for curbside-only service.

"Because if our services are not essential enough to warrant priority vaccination, then we are not essential enough to be offering in-person services," the librarian said.

Later this week, Alderman Sigcho-Lopez said he and even more elected officials will write a letter to the library commissioner and reach out to the Mayor's. office to really push to get the vaccination category for the library staff changed - putting more pressure on City Hall.

In a statement, Patrick Molloy, spokesman for Chicago Public Libraries, said:

We're very proud of all our library personnel who have been serving Chicagoans, including our most vulnerable during the pandemic. As it relates to the vaccine, categories of residents who are eligible for Phase 1b are set by federal and state guidelines. The City has aligned with the State's interpretation of and adherence to those guidelines. Workers in Phase 1b are those who are less able to socially distance or wear masks due to the nature and location of their jobs. All other frontline, essential city workers – from library to sanitation – fall into Phase 1c.

We have worked closely with library staff to develop policies and protocols to keep them safe during the pandemic. Our protocols include changes to work practices, protective equipment, changes to the workspace, capacity limitations, and more. Library staff has been diligent about following all public health guidance and has maintained one of the lowest infection rates among city government throughout. Mayor Lightfoot has repeatedly acknowledged the essential work of library personnel and we are eager for our staff to be vaccinated.

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