According to a new study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Abt Associates, law enforcement officers, firefighters, and other first responders are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 compared with healthcare personnel, and their relatively low vaccination rate could lead to disruptions in essential public services, threatening the public's health and safety.
The study found that unvaccinated law enforcement officers were 20 times more likely than their vaccinated colleagues to become sick with COVID-19 and just 35 percent of unvaccinated first responders believe what the government says about vaccines.
Previous studies have shown that among law enforcement officers (LEOs), COVID-19 was the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths—65.7 percent—from January through November 2021. And, the new CDC-Abt study reports, unvaccinated first responders are experiencing a rate of illness and lost time at work that could pose significant problems for municipal leaders.
From January to September 2021, 1,415 first responders participated in weekly testing for COVID-19-like illness, sending in respiratory specimens for analysis regardless of symptoms. Among those who participated, 59 percent were fully vaccinated.
During that period, incidence of COVID-19 was 20 times greater among unvaccinated LEOs. Among unvaccinated firefighters, the incidence of COVID-19 was five times greater than their vaccinated colleagues.
An electronic survey on the duration of illness, missed work, and attitudes associated with COVID-19 was completed by 1,163 first responders. On average, unvaccinated first responders with confirmed cases of COVID-19 were sick for more than two weeks and missed nearly 40 hours of work. Fully vaccinated first responders had shorter COVID-19 illness duration and missed less work than unvaccinated first responders.
The data show unvaccinated first responders were less likely than those who are vaccinated to believe in the effectiveness (17 percent versus 54 percent) or the safety (15 percent versus 54 percent) of COVID-19 vaccines. Only one-third (35 percent) said they trusted what the government says about the COVID-19 vaccines.
With four out of 10 first responders unvaccinated and likely to be sick for more than two weeks if they contract COVID-19, and two out of three unvaccinated expressing distrust of government communication about COVID-19 vaccines, there could be significant workforce disruption due to COVID-19 illness. As a result, according to the study, state and local officials may want to consider vaccine mandates for first responders to maintain public safety.
The study notes that vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective in preventing COVID-19 and that vaccine mandates have been put in place for healthcare personnel. To increase vaccine uptake among first responders, the study suggests enlisting trusted voices from outside the government to communicate the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine in controlling community spread.
“Our results suggest further action is needed to protect both first responders and the people they serve,” said Lauren Olsho, Abt Principal Investigator for the study.
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