COVID Now Leading Cause of Death Among Law Enforcement

COVID-19 is now the leading cause of law enforcement line-of-duty deaths, the Associated Press reported.

During the first six months of 2021, 71 law enforcement officials in the U.S. died from COVID-19 compared to 76 in the same time period in 2020, according to data compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. The total figure for coronavirus-related deaths in 2020 was 241, which makes the virus the major reason for fatalities among law enforcement.

As of Monday, 132 members of law enforcement agencies are known to have died of COVID-19 this year, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. Last month, six people affiliated with law enforcement died over a 10-day period in Florida.

Though no national statistics show vaccination rates for America's entire population of first responders, individual police and fire departments across the country have reported vaccination rates far below the national rate of 74 percent of adults with at least one dose.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Police COVID-19
COVID-19 is now the leading cause of deaths for law enforcement members across the U.S. A police officer wearing a face mask stands by as demonstrators gather to protest coronavirus stay-at-home orders during a "ReOpen Colorado" rally in Denver, Colorado, on April 19, 2020. Jason Connolly/AFP via Getty Images

March 11, 2021. It was supposed to be a turning point in the coronavirus pandemic for Erin Tokley, a longtime Philadelphia police officer, Baptist minister and 47-year-old father of three. It was supposed to be the day of his vaccine appointment.

Instead it was the date of his funeral.

Tokley — "Toke" to his friends and family — died on March 3, becoming the Philadelphia Police Department's sixth confirmed COVID-19 death.

Philadelphia officers first became eligible for their shots in late January and Tokley was eager to get it as soon as he could. But he fell ill in early February, before it was his turn to roll up his sleeve.

The resurgence of COVID-19 this summer and the national debate over vaccine requirements have created a fraught situation for the nation's first responders, who are dying in larger numbers but pushing back against mandates.

It's a heartbreaking situation for Tokley's widow, Octavia, as the 21st anniversary of their first date approaches on Sept. 10. She said she has moved beyond her anger at other police officers who are refusing the vaccine, and is now disappointed. Her husband's life couldn't be saved, but theirs still can.

"I don't want to have to be there to support your family for this," she said. "Nobody deserves this, especially when it can be prevented."

Frustrated city leaders are enacting mandates for their municipal employees — including police officers and firefighters — as the delta variant surges. The mandates' consequences range from weekly testing to suspension to termination. It's a stark contrast from the beginning of the vaccine rollout when first responders were prioritized for shots.

"It makes me sad that they don't see it as another safety precaution," Octavia Tokley said. "You wear masks, you wear bulletproof vests. You protect each other. That's what you do, you protect and you serve."

Nearly 3,000 miles away, San Francisco firefighter Christopher Salas offers his condolences to Tokley's family. "I feel for her, I feel for her husband," he said.

Salas, 58, has nearly 28 years on the job — 21 of them in the city's tough Tenderloin district. He wears a mask and washes his hands and sanitizes himself. But he stops short at getting the shot — and plans to retire early instead of acquiescing to the city's ultimatum of get vaccinated or get terminated.

"I'm not an anti-vaxxer," he said. "I have all my other vaccines. I'm just not taking this one."

He considered it, just to be able to finish out his career with three decades of service. But after praying about it with his wife, he remains concerned about the efficacy and side effects of the vaccine.

"I don't think I'd be comfortable with myself if I did something that went against my belief," he said of getting the vaccine. "It's about liberty and having your own choice to be your own person."

Public health professionals and elected officials, however, contend that it's bigger than that.

Dr. Jennifer Bryan, a family physician and member of the Mississippi State Medical Association's Board of Trustees, says she's working to change minds a half-hour appointment at a time in a state with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country. With first responders, she reminds them that they can become patients, too.

"It's harder when you want to protect those who are on the front lines," she said. "When you share air with someone, there's a risk. If you share more air with sick people and your job is more public-facing, then you are at risk."

Shon Buford, president of San Francisco Firefighters Local 798, is urging city leaders to delay their Oct. 13 vaccinate-or-terminate deadline.

Twenty workers who did not disclose whether they had received a shot by a previous deadline may receive 10-day unpaid suspensions. One firefighter has sued San Francisco, which was the first major U.S. city to adopt a vaccine mandate for its workers. The overwhelming majority of the city's workforce of 36,000 is vaccinated, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.

Buford, who is vaccinated, says he needs more time to educate his hesitant members, and he's disappointed that San Francisco took such a harsh stance from the beginning. Firefighters like Salas have threatened to retire, and others say they will risk termination.

"To me, they deserve more than an ultimatum," Buford said.

Erin Tokley Picture
Erin Tokley — “Toke” to his friends and family — died on March 3, becoming the Philadelphia Police Department's sixth confirmed COVID-19 death. Amethyst, Erin "Toke" Tokley's five year old daughter, holds a photo of her father, on Aug. 29, 2021, in Secane, Pa. Laurence Kesterson/AP Photo