Wide range of vaccination rates among Sonoma County law enforcement agencies

The Press Democrat surveyed police departments in Sonoma County about their COVID-19 vaccination rates. Here’s what we found.|

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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.

Four agencies had vaccination rates that were lower than the county’s average of 78% as of Oct. 11: Santa Rosa police, Cotati police, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety.

Juan Valencia, a spokesman for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, said in an email that his agency has made it clear to staff the importance of the vaccine. He said the Sheriff’s Office has implemented all state and local pubic health recommendations to minimize the spread of COVID-19 among deputies and other staff.

But he pointed out that in a recent COVID-19 outbreak among court bailiffs, who are Sheriff’s Office employees, all 11 infections were among vaccinated individuals.

“The sheriff has and continues to encourage all employees to get vaccinated,” Valencia wrote. “The fact that people are still getting COVID after being vaccinated is of concern.”

Some 72% of Sheriff’s Office employees have shown proof of full vaccination, according to Valencia. That is the lowest rate of all county government departments by far, with most vaccinated at rates in the 90s.

Since the pandemic started in March 2020, a total of 347 local public safety employees have become infected with the virus. Of these, 132 were cases where transmission occurred in the workplace, according to county data.

Like health care workers, police and fire personnel often come into contact with members of the public. But contact tracing of the 132 workplace infections found that the majority involved transmission from one public safety employee to another.

For example, there have been 26 “co-worker” infections involving fire and emergency medical service workers. In contrast, there have been less than 10 infections of these workers where the transmission is tied to contact with the public. County epidemiologists do not provide exact COVID-19 case numbers if they are less than 10.

Across the county, 33 infections among “police” staff were determined to be tied to co-worker transmission. Fewer than 10 cases were tied to contact with the public, according to a review of the case data by a county epidemiologist.

Agencies' ‘scattershot approach’ to releasing health information

The Press Democrat began requesting data from nine of 10 Sonoma County law enforcement agencies in late September, not including the two contracted departments staffed by sheriff’s deputies in Windsor and Sonoma. Cloverdale officials did not provide data by publication.

Some agencies provided new information Monday, but the most complete dataset obtained by The Press Democrat is from Oct. 11.

Included in the survey are requests for the number of employees of the agency, the vaccination rate, the number of employees tested weekly for COVID-19 and the number of positives.

Under a local public health order issued in early August, unvaccinated public safety personnel were required to begin submitting to weekly COVID-19 screening by Sept. 23.

The full scope of COVID-19 infections and the vaccine campaign against it within law enforcement is difficult to understand, in part due to the patchwork policies government agencies are taking in releasing requested information.

Agencies in four cities — Santa Rosa, Cotati, Healdsburg and Rohnert Park — as well as the Santa Rosa Junior College District Police Department are providing all information requested by The Press Democrat. None of them have had any confirmed COVID-19 infections during the period covered by the survey.

Meanwhile, other agencies have decided to limit their answers to the survey questions.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has refused to provide any information about the number of employees who test for COVID-19 or the number of positive cases “based on the individual health privacy rights,” spokesman Valencia has said on multiple occasions.

The Press Democrat has not requested any personal medical information, but rather general numbers and rates.

Sebastopol Chief Kilgore does provide the overall number of infections per week but won’t disclose the number of employees screening weekly, because “stating this number may unintentionally identify the employee(s) due to the small size of our department.”

Petaluma declined to provide separate vaccination rates for its police and fire departments, instead giving only one combined rate for both, “as has been consistent with our practice for several months,” said spokesman Brian Cochran.

Petaluma also won’t divulge the number of employees who have contracted the virus, explaining in a lengthy letter how that information could be used to pinpoint the identity of an officer. Medical privacy laws, Assistant City Attorney Jordan M. Green wrote, dictate that infection information is exempt from laws requiring the government to release information of public interest.

“In this case, we have determined that the public interest served by not disclosing the positive test results you have requested clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of positive test results,” Green said in the letter.

The argument that general numbers for vaccination rates, tests or infections could lead to the disclosure of an individual officer’s medical information is legally dubious, especially for agencies the size of Petaluma’s and the Sheriff's Office, said First Amendment Coalition lawyer David Snyder.

The Petaluma Police Department employs 103 people, and the Sheriff’s Office employs 569.

“Aggregate data can lead to the identification of individuals, but generally does not,” said Snyder. “Given that there are smaller departments releasing this number without concern, it’s hard for me to see why or how Petaluma’s concern is that the release of positive COVID tests could lead to the identification of an individual.”

Snyder added that the varying disclosure policies in law enforcement across Sonoma County reveal a misunderstanding of their responsibility to provide information to the public, as well as their responsibility to protect individuals’ medical information.

“That helps explain this kind of scattershot approach you’re getting — agencies are approaching this way too cautiously and without a good handle on what’s at stake with the release of this data,” he said.

What’s at stake, he continued, is our collective interest in “understanding COVID exposure in public safety employees” who “come into contact with the public almost every day.”

You can reach Staff Writers Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com and Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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