Across the region, law enforcement officers have expressed outward support for efforts to roll out a COVID-19 vaccination plan to help bring an end to the pandemic.
It seems some, however, may be somewhat hesitant to get the injection themselves.
Both Rhode Island and Connecticut are preparing to expand immunization efforts after spending much of the past month offering the vaccine to high-risk professionals, including medical personnel and first responders. The vaccinations offered have been optional to this point, and first responders have been encouraged to consider the opportunity and to do what they believe is right for themselves and their families.
“I think for any police administration, the end goal is to get to as close to 100% of the department vaccinated as possible,” Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey said. “It is still something that is very new. There’s been a lot of information from officers to absorb in a short amount of time, and I think for some, there is a reluctance [in order] to see what the side effects might be or other impacts it could have.”
Through the first round of scheduling, the responses from officers in Westerly, Stonington, Hopkinton and Richmond have mixed.
Data for the Charlestown Police Department was unavailable as of deadline.
By late Monday, Lacey said an estimated 50% of his department had chosen to opt in and either had received or was scheduled to receive at least the first dose of the two-part vaccine treatment. The department initially had about a 25% response rate when the vaccination plan was first introduced, Lacey said. But more officers have stepped up to take the vaccine over the past week as administrators have pushed an informational campaign and received the first injection themselves.
Lacey said he has already had the first dose and was scheduled to receive the second on Jan. 27.
In Richmond, some within the police department have also been reluctant to hurry and receive the vaccinations. Lt. John Arnold said Wednesday that the department’s vaccination rate remains “considerably under 50%,” and said that while many of the department’s 13 sworn officers are likely to receive the vaccinations at some point in the coming year, they are not necessarily in a rush to be first in line.
“We do have some officers who have already expressed interest in possibly taking it with the next round, but there are a few reasons that those in our department haven’t rushed out to get them right away,” Arnold said.
With both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccinations having been approved by the FDA in the past month, Lacey and Arnold said some of the skepticism is simply that officers have not had an opportunity to review all the details of the vaccines. Others may be waiting to see what happens to those who are currently receiving it in order to determine safety and efficiency.
Westerly police have not had any significant outbreaks, Lacey said, with just two of the department's near 70 employees having tested positive for COVID-19. Both were recent and they have since returned to work following quarantine, he said.
One way the department has been able to monitor closely and prevent outbreaks has been through the use of headquarters as a weekly testing site for the town. Every Wednesday and every other Thursday, he said medical personnel are on site to conduct testing of department staff and town employees.
For those in the Richmond Police Department, Arnold said the pandemic hasn’t been without challenges. Late last fall, he said a significant number of those within the department tested positive for COVID-19 and quarantined. The exact number of confirmed cases was not released.
Arnold said those within the department who contracted the disease developed antibodies, and that has played a role in their decision to wait before getting a vaccination. He said those he spoke with have indicated they are less concerned with contracting the virus again so quickly, but have not ruled out getting the vaccine or other alternatives in the future.
“It’s not a lack of support or even trust, but there just isn’t necessarily as strong a reason for them to hurry to get it,” Arnold said. “I think everyone knows and agrees that widespread vaccination is the only way we are going to get back to a sense of normal.”
Other departments in the region have seen widespread interest and participation early, however, as officers seek to guard themselves against the infection. In Hopkinton, Police Capt. Mark Carrier said 15 of the department’s 17 sworn officers had already received or were scheduled to receive the first dose within the week — he himself received the first dose this week — and he said the support has been uniform among the men and women of the department.
The agency had a scare in December when three officers testing positive for the virus and a few others quarantined after possible exposure. All those who quarantined have since been cleared and returned to work.
“I think the experience was a real eye-opener for our officers,” Carrier said. “With a small department, they were able to see the kind of impact that has on staffing. The requirement of officers to work overtime in order to assure we are able to properly staff shifts — it’s not something that our staff wants to put on one another.”
Stonington police also reported a strong participation rate, with Capt. Todd Olson saying that as of Wednesday afternoon, "nearly every officer" had received at least a first dose.
In a show of camaraderie, Carrier said many of the department’s staff decided to get the vaccinations early and encouraged one another to the same. In fact, he credited his officers with maintaining a positive attitude and making the early participation rate one of the highest among police departments statewide.
“These guys know the ripple effect this could have and they know how their being infected could impact the public. They have really stepped up, in my opinion, to take actions that will ultimately help keep our community and residents safe.”