As the Washington, D.C., region’s coronavirus vaccination efforts continue, public health officials are homing in on segments of the population slow to get the shot – such as law enforcement officers.
While no comprehensive surveying has been done in the region, Virginia officials say less than half of State Police troopers are vaccinated and about 50 percent of corrections officers in the state have been vaccinated.
Large police departments have slightly better rates, with 58 percent of officers vaccinated in the District of Columbia and 65 percent vaccinated in Prince George’s County, Md. Montgomery County, Md.’s high countywide vaccination rate is mirrored among its officers, about 71 percent of whom have gotten the shot.
That’s better than some areas around the country – such as Las Vegas, Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio, where roughly one-third of officers were vaccinated as of early last month.
The reasons are varied, and experts say hesitancy among officers is similar to hesitancy among groups in the wider population.
Warren Eller, chair of the Department of Public Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said distrust of the government and by extension the vaccines, exacerbated by conspiracy theories and reports that he said have “over-highlighted” potential side effects, contribute to hesitancy. That’s in addition to exploitation of Black men in the Tuskegee experiment and the testing of birth control on Puerto Rican women.
“Officials telling some communities, ‘Trust us, we’ve got something for you to take,’ hasn’t always turned out all that well,” Eller said.
The viral numbers in the region have fallen significantly from the highs seen during peaks in the pandemic, such as around the winter holidays. The seven-day average of new cases per 100,000 on Saturday fell to 1.69 in Maryland and 1.82 in Virginia, rates not seen since the start of the pandemic. The number was 1.84 in D.C. as of Friday, last seen in March 2020.
But experts say in a pandemic, any unvaccinated officer in the field is still taking a risk. After shutdowns started 15 months ago, law enforcement officers remained on the job, responding to 911 calls, performing CPR and other activities that placed them in close contact with the public, and running jails and prisons, congregate settings that are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks.
At least three officers in Virginia have died of covid-19, including a sergeant with the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office who helped lead a team at the jail that sanitized and sterilized coronavirus-infected areas, according to a tribute on the sheriff’s office website.
In the early days of vaccinations, when governments tightly controlled which groups got the shots first, advocates for law enforcement in Virginia successfully lobbied Gov. Ralph Northam to move first responders up on the eligibility pyramid, just below health-care workers.
“Law enforcement, they face a lot of threats each and every day, and this is one where we can actually diminish the risk by providing vaccine to all of them,” said Brian Moran, the Virginia secretary of public safety and homeland security, who favored accelerating access.
But not every officer was eager to get the shot.
Some areas have tried to make getting vaccinated as easy as possible for law enforcement.
The Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office set up clinics at the jail in the early days, and leaders have hosted Zoom meetings to encourage vaccination, sheriff’s office spokeswoman Andrea Ceisler said. She declined to share the office-wide vaccination rate.
The Virginia State Police, which has hosted on-site clinics and had its own medical staff administer shots, anticipates its vaccination rate will grow as outreach continues, spokeswoman Corinne Geller said.
In Montgomery County, Earl Stoddard, director of the office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said vaccinations were first offered at the public safety training academy that officers know well, by fire and rescue staffers with whom they already work closely.
Stoddard said his own vaccination appointment turned into an impromptu reunion with chiefs of several local departments, who all happened to be there at the same time.
The county also hired a behavioral health scientist who revised the tone and content of all employee communications. Having the county executive or another high-ranking official address officers was not as well received as hearing from a peer, Stoddard said the scientist advised them.
“Treating them like equals in the way we address the message was very helpful,” Stoddard said. “(Appealing) to their sense of community and the fact that we are serving residents, this is part of a collective effort.”
Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said chiefs and sheriffs in urban areas are more likely to be vaccinated than their rural counterparts, who may consider the risk of transmission in a less populated area to be lower or view vaccines differently.
“Our officers are people, too, so we hear the same concerns that some of the general public has expressed,” she said. That includes concerns about the Food and Drug Administration issuing emergency use authorization for the vaccines as opposed to full approval, questions about efficacy, and unfounded theories about the vaccines causing sterility or changing one’s DNA.
At the height of the pandemic, her organization and others representing police, deputies, firefighters and EMTs pushed for legislation to have coronavirus exposure covered by workers’ compensation insurance. However, she said, now that vaccines are readily available, the unvaccinated may not qualify for coverage.
Although statewide vaccination numbers among officers are not available, John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, said the small number of masked faces he saw at his organization’s conference last week in Williamsburg leads him to believe most are vaccinated.
“We’re having events. There’s a buffet line, people are sitting close together. They’re talking,” he said. “What I see is back to normal.”
However, Danny Avula, the state vaccine coordinator, spoke at the conference to encourage departments to talk to employees frequently about the importance of being vaccinated, especially in a congregate setting like a jail or prison. He also asked them to make vaccination available repeatedly and offer incentives, like money or the ability to skip quarantine if exposed.
“We do just need to keep this in front of people,” he said, adding that the recent low viral numbers may give people a false sense of comfort. “It doesn’t feel important now, but we absolutely have to do everything we can do to avoid a resurgence through December, January and February.”
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