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476 of 605 officer deaths in 2020 and 2021 in the U.S. were due to COVID-19


By Miriam Raftery

October 17, 2021 (San Diego) – Law enforcement officers risk their lives daily to protect the public. Yet many have voiced fear over COVID-19 vaccines as their unions push back against mandates.

The irony is that according to the “Officer Down Memorial Page,” the greatest risk by far to the lives of police and other law enforcement officers isn’t an armed criminal. In 2020 and 2021, COVID-19 killed by far more law enforcement officers nationally and statewide than anything else. In California last year, COVID took the lives of more officers than all other causes of death combined.


In 2021, COVID accounted for a whopping 231 of the 361 deaths of officers – five times more than the 49 felled by gunfire. (Another 19 died in car or motorcycle crashes, 28 were struck or assaulted by vehicles, 15 had heart attacks, and other causes of death were in single digits including assaults, stabbings, natural disasters and 9/11 related illness.)

Nationally in 2020, of 374 officers who died in the line of duty nationwide, 245 lost their lives to COVID-19. Gunfire killed 50 (including 5 inadvertent), car and motorcycle crashes killed 23, 9/11 related illnesses 14, vehicle assaults 13, and causes in single digits included an aircraft accident, assault, drowning, other illness,  heat stroke, and heart attack. View full list:

In California in 2020, 13 of the 18 officers who died perished of COVID-19; COVID accounted for more deaths than all other causes combined.

So far in 2021, 25 officers have died – including 11 from COVID-19, the leading cause of death.  That includes two San Diego Sheriff’s Department corrections deputies working in the probation department and several Border Patrol agents locally.


Paradoxically, many officers willing to brave violence to protect others are afraid to roll up their sleeves and get the COVID-19 vaccine that could save their lives and lives of others they might expose. 

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported on October 3 that only 53% of San Diego Police Department’s 1,962 officers were vaccinated. The Sheriff’s department did not respond to the newspaper’s inquiry and El Cajon refused to release vaccination status of its officers.  La Mesa Police reported less than half (45%) of its force had been vaccinated. National City and Chula Vista led the region with 68% and 69% vaccinated; Oceanside ranked lowest at 43%.

San Diego has issued a mandate requiring SDPD officers to be vaccinated by December 1.  Police officers come into close contact with the public, so vaccines provides a means of protecting both public safety and the health of city workers including police officers. COVID-19 not only poses a risk of death, but also disability, since studies show 10 to 30% of COVID survivors have long-haul cases including damage to lungs, heart, brain, kidneys or other organs.

 But moving forward with the mandate could result in loss of officers, posing a public safety concern of its own.

The San Diego Police Officers Association, the union representing officers, surveyed its members in September and found 90% said they oppose a mandate, 65% would consider quitting and 45% would rather be fired than comply if the city enforces vaccine requirements. Jack Schaffer, head of the SDPOA, has argued for the city to allow weekly COVID testing as an alternative.  

The county Sheriff’s department and East County’s law enforcement agencies have thus far not required vaccinations, though the Deputy Sheriff’s Association has gone on record opposing mandates in an August 2 letter sent to the county. The letter warned of  a potentially “dramatic” impact on community policing as well as staffing in county jails and courthouses, also calling mandates “dangerously close to an invasion of personal and privacy rights’ for members.

Border Patrol officers, military members and other federal workers are mandated to get the vaccine.

In addition, local government and private sector employers with over 100 employees will be required to make sure that workers are vaccinated or provide weekly testing under a Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule.

A CBS News report on October 15 reports major resistance to vaccine mandates in cities across the nation among police officers, prison guards, airport security officers and other law enforcement members. 

Although law enforcement officers in many areas were among the first to be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines as first responders, paradoxically police and other law enforcement officers continue to have far lower vaccination rates than the public they are sworn to protect.

In San Diego County, over 89% of people over age 12 are partially vaccinated and 80% are fully vaccinated, the County’s Health and Human Services Department announced last week. Nationally, the White House reported on October 13, at least 77% of eligible Americans have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

When police officers die in the line of duty from a violent cause such as a shooting or assault, their deaths are widely publicized and their lives memorialized with elaborate memorial services and funeral processions through the cities they served. But when an officer succumbs to COVID-19, the cause of death may remain unknown to the public and to those with whom the officer served. 

Perhaps if as much attention were paid to the 476 American law enforcement officers who have lost their lives to COVID-19 since the pandemic began, more current officers might decide to get vaccinated. 

Over 403 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the U.S. to date, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Serious side effects are extremely rare. 

How rare? Blood clots after the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have occurred in about 7 of every 1 million people vaccinated, mainly in women. However COVID-19 can also cause clots – and at much higher rates than the vaccine.  Cases of myocarditis and pericarditis in young people after the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine are similarly very rare and the risk of heart damage from COVID is far higher. 

With the new Delta variant that spreads more easily than the original COVID-19 strain, plus mask mandates and social distancing requirements being lifted, the risk for unvaccinated people to contract COVID-19 is higher than in the past.

Newly released CDC data reveals that in August 2021, unvaccinated adults were 11 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than fully vaccinated adults. In addition, unvaccinated adults are six times more likely to catch COVID-19 than fully vaccinated adults.

The Officer Down Memorial Page offers this advice to law enforcement members:  “Getting vaccinated is just as important as wearing your vest and your seatbelt.”

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