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Many have caught the virus, but vaccines remain a tough sell among police officers


Despite a large number of police deaths from COVID-19, many still oppose vaccination.

More than 460 U.S. law enforcement officers have died from COVID-19, making the coronavirus by far the most common cause of duty-related deaths in 2020 and 2021. Emily Kask / The New York Times

BAKER, Louisiana – In the past year and a half, the majority of the roughly 40 police officers who patrol Baker, Louisiana, a suburb of Baton Rouge, have tested positive for the coronavirus. All recovered and returned to work – until Lt. DeMarcus Dunn fell ill.

Dunn, a 36-year-old shift supervisor who coached youth sports and once chased someone who fled the police station after being arrested, died of COVID-19 on August 13. Her wedding was scheduled for the next day.

Chief Carl K. Dunn said he assumed the lieutenant, a distant relative, was vaccinated, but thought it would be inappropriate to ask. It was only after the death, the chief said, that he was told Dunn had not been shot. For some others in the department who had resisted vaccination, it was a turning point.

“They were like, ‘Oh, look, wait a minute,'” Dunn recalls last month. “These are the ones who started having him after DeMarcus left us.”

More than 460 U.S. law enforcement officers have died from work-related COVID-19 infections since the start of the pandemic, according to Officer Down Memorial Page, making the coronavirus by far the most common cause. frequent work-related deaths in 2020 and 2021. More than four times as many officers died from COVID-19 than from gunfire during this period. There is no full accounting of how many U.S. police officers have been sickened by the virus, but departments across the country have reported large outbreaks in the ranks.

As the virus ravaged police, persuading officers to get vaccinated has often been a struggle, even though injections have proven to be widely effective in preventing serious illness and death.

Some elected officials say police officers have a higher responsibility to get vaccinated because they regularly interact with members of the public and could spread the virus unknowingly. The debate echoes concerns at the start of the pandemic, when police in some cities resisted wearing masks in public.

Yet as more departments have considered in recent weeks requiring vaccination of their members, officers and their unions have backed down sharply, in some cases threatening resignations or flooding systems with requests for exemptions.

In San Jose, Calif., City leaders decided, just as a vaccination mandate was taking effect, to allow unvaccinated agents to remain employed until the end of the year, with additional requirements in discipline and testing. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo has said he wants to keep as many police officers as possible on the job, but worries about the public health risks of having unvaccinated police officers on the streets.

“It’s a huge challenge, and I think mayors across the country are balancing the safety imperatives of answering 911 calls with the safety imperatives of having a vaccinated workforce,” Liccardo said.

But agents have leverage. Many police departments have an abundance of job openings and a shortage of qualified candidates. And city leaders say they don’t want to risk a massive departure of officers at a time when homicides have increased nationwide.

“If you decide to go ahead with this vaccine’s mandate, the loss of agents is on you,” said Josh Carter, an officer in Leesburg, Va., At a recent meeting where members city ​​council considered a vaccine mandate for city workers (and decided not to vote that day). “I will come back and ask you what your plan is to keep my family and neighbors safe with little or no officers patrolling our streets or schools,” Carter told the council.

Still, warrant supporters have noted that there are risks to the public in not demanding the shots. Mayor Kelly Burk of Leesburg, a suburb of Washington, said she supported the vaccine requirement.

“We have a job, and this job is also to protect, and they are part of that protection,” Burk, a Democrat, said of the city’s police force. “And so if they are not vaccinated, if they are not willing to wear masks, then it becomes a real problem.”

Workplace vaccination mandates became more common as the delta variant skyrocketed cases and President Joe Biden announced plans to require frequent vaccination or testing from large employers. The warrants have been successful in increasing vaccination rates at healthcare companies, airlines and other businesses, and a relatively small number of workers have left their jobs because of the problem.

Health departments do not usually publish immunization data by occupation, but some cities have released figures showing that police department employees were immunized at lower rates than most other officials and at lower rates. to those of the general public. In Los Angeles, where vaccines are mandatory for city employees, more than 2,600 police department employees have said they intend to seek a religious exemption, although almost all major faiths support the vaccines.

Law enforcement and union officials cited disinformation, misleading claims by prominent conservatives, and mistrust of how vaccines were developed as reasons some officers resisted being get vaccinated; many other Americans cite the same factors.

But some officials have speculated that the daily dangers of police work can also make an invisible virus appear less dangerous and vaccination is a lower priority for police.

Sheriff John Mina of Orange County, Florida said officers deal with “violent criminals carrying guns all the time, and I think they think that may be more of a threat.”

Mina, who is vaccinated, brought in a doctor to answer MPs’ questions about the vaccine and offered three days off for those who were vaccinated. But the last time the ministry checked, about 45% of employees who responded to a survey were still not vaccinated.

Mina said he opposed the warrants and feared that demanding shots could lead to an exodus to agencies in neighboring communities.

No department has reported large-scale departures during terms of office, but unions have hinted at the possibility. Some cities allow officers to get tested regularly rather than getting vaccinated. Others, including Memphis, Tennessee, where homicides have risen sharply during the pandemic and authorities are trying to hire more officers, have made no requirements.

It is nearly impossible to work from home or maintain social distancing as a police officer, and at least 125 law enforcement officers have died from COVID-19 since early August, according to Officer Down Memorial Page , a nonprofit group that follows the line of service-related deaths (and has yet to count those in Dunn’s).

Several of the most recent deaths have been reported among young officers: Freddie Castro, 23, of Overland Park, Kansas, police; Joseph Kurer, 26, of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, police; Jennifer Sepot, 27, of the Fort Lauderdale, Florida Police Department.

The immunization status of most of the deceased officers has not been made public. While some breakthrough infections of vaccinated people lead to death, the vast majority of Americans hospitalized or dying from COVID-19 are not vaccinated.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which advises departments on best practices, said unions and police service leaders often failed to come to an agreement on terms of officers. About 68% of American adults are fully immunized, although rates vary widely from state to state.

“If it were cops being shot in the streets of America today at that number, there would be outrage,” Wexler said of the COVID-19 toll among officers. “This is an issue that requires leadership and puts politics aside. And this is exactly the opposite of what is happening now.

A warrant test case is already unfolding in Massachusetts, where Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, has ordered state soldiers and many other state employees to get vaccinated. Although most of the state’s soldiers are in compliance, according to their union, some have refused to be shot, with the mid-October deadline approaching.

Michael Cherven, president of the State Police Association of Massachusetts, which represents the base’s officers, said he believed dozens of soldiers could quit their jobs because of the issue.

“We have been through this pandemic day in and day out,” Cherven said. “We were able to take care of our own by wearing masks, self-isolation and testing. It worked. ”He said he and the union board were vaccinated, but he thought it was wrong to force shots at soldiers who objected to receiving them.

In Louisiana, where DeMarcus Dunn’s former cruiser was still parked outside Baker’s police station, Carl Dunn said he was not in favor of the vaccine requirement.

For more than a year, the chef has called sick officers daily and delivered meals to quarantined officers. When epidemics spread through his department, he reshuffled schedules and asked officers to work overtime.

Dunn said he told agents more about the benefits of vaccination and used the loss of their colleague as an edifying tale, but still believed vaccination was an individual choice.

It’s a personal argument from one of his own friends, said Dunn, which prompted him to get the shot earlier this year, despite some initial qualms.

“If I was reluctant at first, how can I tell someone not to be reluctant? Dunn said. “I’m just saying, ‘Dude, if I was you I’d get the shot. “”