If an officer pulls you over during a routine traffic stop, there's plenty to worry about. It could be an expensive fix-it ticket or a citation, but it could also be that the officer approaching your window declined to get the COVID-19 vaccine and is putting you at risk.
Police departments throughout Santa Clara and San Mateo counties are encouraging officers to get vaccinated, but the results vary widely from one department to the next. Some agencies are publicly touting high rates, while others are struggling to get their cops to get the shot. And for some departments, there hasn't been any effort to track vaccination rates, making it a mystery just how many are immunized.
Law enforcement employees in the Bay Area have had access to the COVID-19 vaccine since January, placing high on the priority list as first responders who interact with the public on a daily basis. But the early access hasn't necessarily led to higher vaccination rates among sworn officers, particularly among those working in county jails.
On the high end is the Mountain View Police Department, which reports that 83% of its sworn officers had received the COVID-19 vaccine as of May 10. By comparison, about 73% of residents above age 12 in Santa Clara County have received the vaccine. For non-sworn personnel in the department, the vaccination rate is over 90%.
For the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office, it's been more of a challenge. Among those working in the jails, only 476 sworn officers (59%) had received the vaccine as of May 11, up from 53% in early March but still well below the county average. The rate improves to 67% among enforcement officers outside of the custody setting.
The low vaccination rates among jail staff have raised alarm bells for county supervisors, who worry that widespread immunization is critical to protect those who are incarcerated. A total of 427 inmates have contracted COVID-19 while in custody since the pandemic began, averaging one to two active cases at a time in recent months, while 243 employees of the sheriff's department have contracted the virus. The sheriff's office does not disclose who has been vaccinated, and does not give different roles to correctional officers based on their vaccination status.
At a May 4 meeting, county Supervisor Joe Simitian questioned whether more could be done to improve the persistently low vaccination rate among jail guards, or if the leadership at the sheriff's office was content to "live with" the low number of deputies opting to get the shot.
"I just think both in terms of the health of our jail population, the health of our employees and the potential liability, this is an issue that we can't just keep kicking the can down the road on," Simitian said.
Assistant Sheriff Timothy Davis said the department is making a concerted effort to improve the vaccination numbers. He said they are in constant communication with staff, providing informational emails, weekly meetings, town halls and even a video that sought to dispel some of the concerns about the vaccine.
"The sheriff's office is very pro-vaccine, and we will continue to work on efforts to increase those numbers," he said.
There has been more success next door, where the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office reports that 133 of the 188 sworn staff working in jails have been vaccinated, or just over 70%. That number could be even higher, as the data only tracks those who received the vaccine through the county health system, said Rosemerry Blankswade, spokeswoman for the agency. The vaccination rate among all 502 officers at the sheriff's office was not immediately available.
The Palo Alto and Menlo Park police departments could not provide vaccination data for their officers. James Reifschneider, acting captain for the Palo Alto Police Department, said officers are being encouraged to get the vaccine but the department has no records of how many employees have actually been immunized. Nicole Acker, a spokeswoman for the Menlo Park Police Department, said the city isn't tracking vaccination rates among officers so long as it remains voluntary.
"The Menlo Park Police Department has encouraged all our employees to get vaccinated, and were active participants in the vaccination program facilitated by the county in February for law enforcement personnel," Acker said. "We continue to encourage vaccinations and employ all appropriate safety protocols to avoid infection and prevent spread of COVID-19."
The supportive messaging stands in stark contrast to the California Peace Officers Association (CPOA), a statewide professional association for law enforcement personnel, which has declined to encourage its membership to get the vaccine. Shaun Rundle, deputy director of the CPOA, said the organization is "not approaching" the issue of vaccines at all, and does not have data on vaccination rates among officers statewide.
State officials are working with California's prison guard union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, to boost vaccination rates among those working in prisons and jails. So far, Gov. Gavin Newsom has said there are no plans to make vaccines a requirement.
Police departments in Santa Clara County will soon be required to track vaccination rates among employees, broadening public knowledge of which law enforcement agencies are successfully immunizing their officers. Under a May 18 county health order, businesses and government entities must determine which employees are vaccinated by June 1, and staff who are not fully vaccinated must wear face masks and follow COVID-19 public health protocols.