Local law enforcement leaders say state and county officials have pushed police officers too far back in line to get a vaccine, and, as they wait their turn, some police chiefs are saying their concerns have gone unanswered.
“They feel like they’ve been forgotten,” said Chula Vista Police Chief Roxana Kennedy, who is also the president of the San Diego County Police Chiefs and Sheriffs Association. “It’s a challenging thing for an organization. So as law enforcement leaders we felt we had to step forward and try to figure out why.”
It’s a question police chiefs all over San Diego are asking county leaders: Why are so many others able to get vaccines ahead of their officers – including cannabis industry workers?
When thousands of fire department workers and EMT’s in San Diego County started getting their shots at the end of December, San Diego police union president Jack Schaeffer was hopeful.
“I thought that we’d be the following week or something like that,” Schaeffer said. “And it seemed like things were heading in that direction — and then they took a turn that I wasn’t prepared for.”
That turn? The state, and now the county, has yet to allow police officers to get their vaccine.
“They keep telling me we’re going to be the next group,” Schaeffer said. “But is that next group after half a million people are already vaccinated, or is that going to be next week? I have no idea, and that’s been very confusing.”
Schaeffer, Kennedy and four other local police chiefs spoke with NBC7 Investigates, including Capt. Matt Nicholass, La Mesa’s interim police chief; El Cajon police chief Mike Moulton; Community College District police chief Joseph Ramos; and San Diego Unified School District interim police chief Joey Florentino.
All six officials told NBC 7 that officers are often first to the scene of traffic crashes and 911 calls, and are regularly administering CPR to those victims and Narcan to overdose patients, as well as triaging people with traumatic injuries.
“We really do need to have a conversation about this,” Kennedy said, “and maybe there’s a misunderstanding about what law enforcement really does.”
Kennedy said she tried to have that conversation, reaching out to the County Board of Supervisors and Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten. Supervisor Nora Vargas wrote Kennedy back, she said, but no one else responded.
“It makes you feel like they don’t even want to listen to what we’re walking about,” Kennedy said.
NBC7 Investigates reached out to a county spokesman for a comment but has not heard back.
El Cajon’s Moulton said it’s not just police who should be worried.
“We’re just as concerned about the public as we are for our police officers,” said Moulton, adding that there is a fear that asymptomatic officers could unknowingly be super spreaders of the virus.
“We can be part of the problem if we are vulnerable, and getting sick and moving it around to other people,” Schaeffer said.
Officers are getting sick, in fact.
Public records from the San Diego Police Department show that, as of Jan. 5, almost 170 officers have tested positive, and nearly 1,000 officers have reported being exposed to the virus – more than have the department.
In Chula Vista, more than 200 police employees have had to isolate or quarantine, including 74 workers who tested positive or were diagnosed with COVID-19 – a large number, considering that Chula Vista only has 250 officers.
As of Jan. 29, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department reported 520 total positive cases of COVID-19 among its employees, 118 of which are active.
“It’s hard … because we’re not trying to be disrespectful at all,” Kennedy said. “We’re really not. We’re just trying to make sure that we can protect our officers, the community and the families that our officers go home to.”
Sometimes there are spare vaccines left over at the end of the day at county vaccination sites, and about 300 San Diego police officers have managed to get a vaccine that way, as well as 75 Chula Vista officers.
Kennedy estimated that roughly 3,600 officers in San Diego County are currently unvaccinated.
Meanwhile other counties have chosen to vaccinate law enforcement officers, including Orange, Riverside, Bakersfield, Sonoma and Humboldt counties.