CLEVELAND — It wasn’t a suspect with a gun, nor was it traffic accidents: the leading cause of death for law enforcement officers across the country in 2020 was COVID-19. Despite the virus ravaging departments from Cleveland to Cincinnati, law enforcement was not included in Phase 1A of the state’s vaccination plan alongside firefighters, paramedics, and EMTs.
According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 264 officers died in the line of duty in 2020, a 96% increase from the 135 officers killed in 2019. The massive surge is due in large part to the coronavirus, the report found. Of the 264 officers who died in the line of duty last year, 145 of them were confirmed COVID-19 cases. The report also stated a “significant number” of additional COVID-19-related fatalities have already been identified and, once confirmed, the total number of COVID-19 deaths in the law enforcement community will grow significantly.
In the early planning stages of Ohio’s vaccination plan, law enforcement groups tried to advocate for priority access to the vaccines, seeking either Phase 1A or Phase 1B. However, law enforcement was notably left out of either stage. Fellow first responders, including firefighters, paramedics, and EMTs were included in Phase 1A.
“Law enforcement and police officers should have been in the first round with firefighters and EMTs,” said Brian Holb, an attorney for the Ohio Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “Law enforcement officers are usually the first ones on the scene of a severe medical emergency, and in some cities, police officers and sheriff's deputies go on every call. That’s something that has been very frustrating for law enforcement and those that represent them. We know what they do on a daily basis and frankly, the governor knows what they do too.”
Gov. Mike DeWine, the former attorney general, has said that he understands the concerns of the law enforcement community but that Ohio’s vaccine rollout plan focuses on those most likely to die from the coronavirus, including the elderly. Additionally, the state’s vaccination plan includes teachers higher up on the list, which DeWine said will allow students to return to in-person education more quickly.
A spokesperson for DeWine re-iterated those sentiments in a statement on Thursday.
“While there is a compelling case for this group and many groups to receive the vaccine as soon as possible, there is not enough vaccine supply right now to vaccinate all groups at this time,” the statement reads. “Vaccine eligibility to date has reflected Governor DeWine’s goals of saving as many lives as possible and returning K-12 students to in-person instruction.”
In mid-January, the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio, sent DeWine and the Ohio Department of Health a letter, outlining its case on why law enforcement should be included sooner in the vaccine schedule. Ohio FOP president and former Garfield Heights police officer, Gary Wolske, said the pandemic has wreaked havoc on police departments and sheriff's offices all across the state, causing burnout and staffing shortages.
“Our guys and gals are out there on the front lines. They are first responders for a reason. They probably come into contact with more people a day than any other group of people,” Wolske said. “We’re talking about large numbers of law enforcement personnel. What that does is that it detracts from what they can do on the street to protect the communities because they are so short-handed. Then, if you fill it with overtime, folks are getting tired.”
Ohio recently opened up vaccine eligibility for residents 65 and older. Additionally, workers in nursing homes and assisted living facilities that previously opted out of receiving the vaccine last month remain eligible to get back in line.
“The governor is now allowing folks to get back in line that got out of line that didn’t want to be in line,” Wolske said. “I know a lot of cops that want to be in line.”
Wolske and Holb both pointed to the everyday hazards that law enforcement officers face on an every-shift basis that could put them in contact with a carrier of the virus. Although departments have implemented various efforts to combat the virus, law enforcement officers will inevitably come into contact with an asymptomatic carrier just by the nature of what they do. On many occasions, sometimes multiple times a night, officers will encounter an uncooperative subject that may not be wearing a mask.
Holb said the statistics speak for themselves.
“I don’t know what other proof those at the state level need to show that our members are coming into contact with this virus on a consistent basis,” Holb said.
Wolske pointed to Ohio’s neighboring states, including Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky that have all included law enforcement in either the state’s respective Phase 1A or Phase 1B plan.
“I talked to a guy today, he’s a chief. He’s 60. He’s hoping that in the next group, he gets his shot for being an old guy instead of being he’s a cop. That’s sad,” Wolske said.