Wide range of vaccination rates among Sonoma County law enforcement agencies
COVID-19 vaccination rates among local law enforcement officers — who have one of the highest workplace infection rates — vary from as low as 72% to nearly 100%, according to a Press Democrat survey of Sonoma County police departments.
The rates of COVID-19 inoculations among local public safety personnel are of particular concern, given the groups’ high rate of infections that have been contracted at the workplace. County public health data shows that since the pandemic began, 38% of infections among public safety officers have occurred on the job. That’s just behind local health care workers, who have a work-based infection rate of 38.2%.
In the past 60 days, public safety workers have topped the county’s list of workplace COVID-19 transmission, with 22 of 55 infections occurring at work.
The survey of data provided biweekly by eight local police agencies to The Press Democrat shows that as of Oct. 11, departments on average have a vaccination rate of about 79%, comparable to that of the overall vaccine rate for Sonoma County residents.
Vaccination rates are based on the number of employees who submit paperwork that verifies their vaccination status. The responses to the twice-monthly survey vary from agency to agency based on officials and departments’ individual interpretations of what they are required to disclose to the public.
The issue of vaccinations among law enforcement has been the subject of intense debate nationwide. Mandates have resulted in standoffs and mass terminations across the country. In San Francisco, 40 unvaccinated police officers were put on leave and a total of 99 could be fired for failure to comply with their department’s vaccine requirement.
The virus has taken more law enforcement officers’ lives across the country than any other cause in the past year, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, which documents every police death in the line of duty nationwide.
In the past two years, COVID-19 deaths comprised 65% of the 745 line-of-duty fatalities logged by the nonprofit website.
This year alone, the disease has killed 238 officers, out of a total of 371 deaths, according to the website. That’s more than every other cause of death combined. Fifty died by gunfire by comparison.
In California, COVID-19 killed 11 officers out of the 20 who died in 2021.
The website mentions the deaths of Santa Rosa Police Detective Marylou P. Hernandez-Armer and Sonoma County Sheriff’s Correctional Lt. Bobby Travelstead, who succumbed to the virus, respectively, on March 31, 2020 and Sept. 1, 2021.
Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, said increasing vaccination rates among local first responders is a key public health goal to help keep them and the public safe.
But Mase said the local public health division is “working collaboratively” with local public safety agencies to increase vaccine rates. She said Sonoma County is one of the few counties in the state that has a vaccine verification requirement for police, fire and EMS workers, though that requirement allows for weekly testing as an alternative for those who decline to be vaccinated.
“It’s really important to get our first responders’ vaccine rates up, and that’s what we’re doing,” she said.
Asked if a “hard mandate,” one that eliminates COVID-19 testing as an alternative to vaccination, would be considered to increase rates, Mase said she wants to first “gauge” the impact of the current health order.
Dr. Urmila Shende, the county’s vaccine chief, agreed.
“From the beginning of this vaccine program, patience, patience, patience has been what has been extremely important, and it takes some people time to become comfortable with the vaccine,” Shende said.
Some near full vaccination
The leader among Sonoma County agencies is the Sebastopol Police Department, with 97% of its staff fully vaccinated. The next highest rates, in the Petaluma and Healdsburg police departments, are in the low 80s.
“The size of our department plays a significant role in why we’ve had success in being vaccinated,” said Sebastopol Police Chief Kevin Kilgore.
Kilgore said that he has been able to encourage vaccinations with face-to-face and one-on-one education of his 26 employees, which include full-time, part-time and volunteer staff. He said his officers have made the “personal choice” to get the shot in order to protect themselves, their families and the community.
Last week, county health officials released data that showed unvaccinated individuals are 7 times more likely to be hospitalized and 30 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who are vaccinated.