On December 23, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler interviewed leaders of four law enforcement and correctional agencies about the progress they’ve made in arranging for vaccination of their employees as well as jail inmates. The agencies are the St. Mary’s County, MD Sheriff’s Office; the Essex County, MA Sheriff’s Department; the Wilmington, DE Police Department; and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

Earlier this month, PERF surveyed its members about their expectations for COVID-19 vaccinations, including when they anticipated their personnel to get vaccinated and what percentage of employees would choose to get the vaccine.

St. Mary’s County, MD Sheriff Tim Cameron

Since COVID hit in March, we’ve been working with our County Health Department, so every aspect of our policy reflects our Governor’s executive order. Back in March I brought on a nurse to manage our COVID response with our employees and to provide training and education to our employees about COVID.

At 3:30 today, I’ll be vaccinated outside our hospital as part of the rollout of the vaccinations here in our county. 

Our vaccination plan is basically in three tiers:

  • Tier 1 is our jail personnel and front-line patrol personnel;
  • Tier 2 is the remaining patrol administration, Special Operations Division, our investigations divisions, corrections admin, vice and narcotics, and our medical staff at the jail;
  • Tier 3 is our Office of Professional Responsibilities, some remaining admin staff, and our professional staff.

We have this mapped out. Our nurse and our Health Department personnel will actually administer the vaccine. We’re going to use our mass vaccination site plan to provide the vaccinations for my personnel as well as Fire and Rescue at one of the sites.  And that will help us do a dry run of our mass vaccination sites for the public. We have 3 very large sites, and our responsibilities will be to escort the vaccine to each site and then maintain security of the site, and also traffic management.

All of this is getting ready to happen. We’re starting to receive both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Chuck, in one of your previous reports you said that leadership sets a tone, so I’m getting the vaccine to help support our rollout and keep our community safe.

Chuck Wexler:  How long will it take for all of your people to get vaccinated?

Sheriff Cameron:  I anticipate after Christmas it will take several days to vaccinate our employees.

Wexler:  Are your employees receptive?

Sheriff Cameron:   We discussed whether to make it mandatory among our command staff and counsel, and I decided not to make it mandatory. But our nurse put out educational material encouraging our personnel to get the vaccine.  We did a survey and about 50% of total agency are getting the vaccine, and I anticipate that later on, the others will want to get it during the mass vaccination opportunities at our sites and through doctors’ offices and CVS and Walgreens, etc. Our nurse is tracking everyone who gets it, and she’ll track when they’re due for their follow-up shot.

And she’ll know who has not gotten the vaccine, and that is concerning to me. We’ve had a number of people who have isolated or quarantined because of direct exposure or because they got COVID. But after the vaccinations, if somebody were to go down and the CARES Act sick leave goes away, as an agency we’ll have to decide how to treat that, the personnel who didn’t get the vaccine and find themselves sick or quarantined.

Wexler:  What is the thinking about vaccinating jail inmates? Can that be required?

Sheriff Cameron:  We have discussed this in house, and I think it’s something we’ll have to resolve, but so far we have not had a positive COVID case in our jail. We’ve worked very hard, and of course if you have no cases in a jail, any threat comes from the outside. Our nurse has been good about noticing symptoms among employees and communicating to them that they shouldn’t come to work if they’re feeling ill. But the entire jail staff, including contract staff, is being offered the vaccine.

Sergeant Clay Safford, St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office

Wexler:  Sergeant Safford, is there anything you’d like to add?

Sergeant Safford:  Our hiring of our nurse back in March was invaluable. She liaisons every day with the Health Department, so she serves as our conduit to all that information. Prior to the nurse arriving, I was making the quarantine decisions, and I’m really in no position to do that, so I’m glad she’s here.

We also use the PinPoint health app. You put it on your cell phone, and every employee wakes up in the morning and can report any symptoms online, and that information goes directly to the nurse. With that information, she can contact the employee directly.  It’s been very useful.

Essex County, MA Sheriff Kevin Coppinger

In Massachusetts, the Sheriff’s Department is strictly corrections. We assist local police, but are not the primary law enforcement agencies in our communities.

I congratulate Tim on having no cases in his jail. Unfortunately, I’m kind of at the other end of the spectrum. We’re in the middle of another spike right now. We manage the spikes and get them back to zero, but it’s difficult.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health is the lead agency. The Sheriff’s Department is part of Phase 1. The state last week and this week has been vaccinating doctors and nurses and other health care workers. That will be followed by police, fire, and EMS workers. We’re in the last part of Phase 1; they call it 1D. We’re considered a congregate care organization. We’re scheduled to get the vaccine probably after January 15, to the end of January.

Mass DPH sent us a questionnaire a couple weeks ago; they wanted to know how many vaccines we need, not just for staff, but for the providers and vendors, and we gave them a number. The rule of thumb is whether people have contact with inmates. We have about 848 employees, staff and vendors, and about 825 of them have contact with inmates. So we’ve asked for vaccinations for the vast majority of the people in our facility.

In Massachusetts, our Governor has said that the inmates will be eligible for the vaccine. We have about 1,000 inmates. We’re doing a lot of education with the inmates as well as our employees. But we have concerns, because the flu is a problem up here, so we offered the flu vaccine back in September, and we’re lucky if we get about 20%. A lot of inmates are afraid that they’ll be “experimented upon” for the sake of the general public. So we aren’t certain how many of them will take the vaccine.

And there has been some pushback from the public about inmates receiving priority for the vaccine. My position is that since the beginning of COVID, everything we’ve done has been medically driven. Wellpath is our medical care company, and they’re a national agency, so they bring a lot of assets to the table. They make most of the decisions with Mass DPH, based on CDC guidelines.

We are going to be vaccinating inmates on that same schedule, mid- to late-January. Altogether, about 1,800 people will be eligible. Wellpath will be administering the vaccines over a period of about 3 days.

We also did an informal survey through one of our larger unions, with about 500 officers, and we’re getting that same result of about 50% saying they’ll take it when it’s initially offered. The word coming from DPH is that if someone declines the vaccine at first, but down the road when the second vaccine is being administered, they change their mind, we’ll be able to give it to them as well.

We’re anticipating we’ll get the Moderna vaccine, which is easier to store because you don’t need the deep freeze.

We will be offering the vaccine at intake for new arrivals here, and obviously we’ll try to push it out to them.

One of the questions is who’s going to keep track to make sure we provide the second shot to people?  In Essex County, Wellpath will do that for us. But the question will be inmates who are released after receiving shot 1 but haven’t received shot 2. The state is said to have a database so that if an inmate is released, they’ll get guidance as to where they can go to receive the second shot, or at least a contact with DPH so they can follow up when they’re back in the community.

If someone is positive with COVID right now, they’re advising us to not give them the vaccines, and wait until they hopefully are medically clear.

And a similar question involves folks who are showing flu symptoms. We do test for flu and COVID routinely here, so if they’re showing flu symptoms or have tested positive, we’ll hold off on the vaccine until they’re medically cleared by the experts.

Wexler:  How many days do you think it will take to administer 1,800 vaccines?

Sheriff Coppinger:   We did mandatory testing back in September because we had an outbreak. We tested 1,800 people over about 3 days. It’s quicker to administer the vaccine than do testing. But it’s going to depend on having an adequate supply of the vaccine and how quickly it can come.

Wexler:  Will you be one of the first to be vaccinated?

Sheriff Coppinger:   Oh yes. I gave it a lot of thought, and no disrespect to the experts you see on TV, but the people who convinced me are the nurses. We have a good staff of nurses here, and they’re all getting it.

Chief Bob Tracy, Wilmington (DE) Police Department

In Delaware, the vaccine distribution is being led by the State Division of Public Health and the Delaware COVID Vaccine Task Force. They have a playbook and an ethics advisory group and have made the decisions about phases. After the frontline medical workers get the vaccine, police, fire, and emergency management are up next in Phase 1B. Because of how the vaccine has to be stored, it’s being done at a local hospital.

In terms of which of our officers will go when, Inspector Emory and I have been working on the logistics. For example, in case some people may experience side effects, do you do a whole platoon at the same time? I know that side effects like that are a long shot, but you always want to make every effort in planning to mitigate anything bad that might happen.

Inspector Emory has been dealing with all of this since March – the COVID positives coming in, all the tracing, and working with our dispensary and our human resources in the city government and the police department to make sure we can protect our officers in the best way.

Inspector Chuck Emory, Wilmington Police Department

Wexler:  When exactly do you think you’ll start getting vaccines, and do you have priority categories?

Inspector Emory:  It’s projected to be end of January, and the plan is for the uniformed services first, because they’re out in public more, followed by Special Operations, and then we’ll go into the admin personnel. And in between, we have to make sure we get our civilian personnel, our communications center people, along with some victim services people who go out with our detectives.

We’re going to have to stagger it because we can’t risk anyone having an adverse side-effect. We plan to do things like vaccinating people on the last day of their shift, so they’ll have a couple days off before they come back to work.

This should begin the second week of January. And we really want to spread it out, so we’re talking maybe 4 to 5 days, depending on the availability of everyone at the facility to get the vaccination. We don’t want even a slight chance of taking an entire group down at one time if they get side effects.

Chief Tracy:  We’ve done some informal surveys as well, and we considered whether we should mandate the vaccine, but we have enough who are volunteering, so I don’t think we need to come to that. So we’ve made a decision at this time that it’s strictly voluntary. 

Inspector Emory:  In our survey, I only came across about 2 people who said they did not want the vaccination. And even those 2 are sort of 50-50, so I think that once other people start getting it done, they’ll probably come on board.  Out of 400 people, we’ve only had 2 who declined or are on the fence.

Wexler:  Bob, will you take the vaccine?

Chief Tracy:  Yes.  If I’m going to lead my officers to take it, that begins with taking it myself.  And like Sheriff Coppinger, I trust the nurse in my system, who told me yes, definitely take it.

Deputy Chief Andrew Walsh, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department

We have the same challenges here. We did a survey of the civilians, commissioned, and corrections people whom the sheriff is in charge of leading. Fewer than 50% responded, and fewer than 50% of those who responded said they would take the vaccine.

But we believe that part of that is due to the fact that we’ve had upwards of 900 employees who have already been infected with COVID. And the willingness to take the vaccine could increase as it becomes more mainstream in the general population, with a lot of folks lining up to get it.

We’re one of 10 groups in Tier 1, and statewide, Tier 1 has about 175,000 people. The health district here is continually presented with COVID challenges, and it was stretched to the limit earlier this year when it was handling testing. We expect that it will have similar issues with distributing the vaccine.

So the Southern Nevada Health District is establishing a closed POD -- Point of Distribution -- for law enforcement. They’re predicting they’ll have that up and running by the end of January. I’m cautiously optimistic that that timeline will hold true.

We’re still fine-tuning the schedule of who goes first, but it’s the forward-facing front line, both civilian and commissioned folks who have daily contact with the public, who we want to receive the vaccine first.

And we have the Clark County Detention Center. The inmates are in Tier 2, so that will be a separate process for us, where we see how we will distribute the vaccine to people in custody.

The challenge now is like that in other states. The numbers of doses of vaccine coming into Nevada are far lower than we expected, so that’s why the timeline is stretched out. But we have a system here where officers take an annual physical that involves two visits to the doctor, so we’re looking to replicate that system to make sure that people get the second dose of the vaccine at the right time, and making sure that if they get the Pfizer vaccine in the first round, they get the same vaccine in the second.

We’ve also wrestled with the question of whether to make it mandatory for the workforce, and the union here said they believe that making it mandatory would be subject to collective bargaining. So we have some challenges there if we ever go down that path, but we’re not there yet, like most agencies.

Unfortunately, we did have 2 employees of our department pass away from COVID. So you would think that interest in the vaccine would be higher. But because most people who were sick with COVID have returned to work, most people don’t see it as life-threatening. So we have the education piece still in front of us, not only with our workforce, but with the community.

And part of that is getting people to understand that you may get it and recover, but you could pass it along to someone who might not recover.

Wexler:    Recently I interviewed 3 chiefs who are mandating vaccinations, and they said they will have to make special accommodations for people who don’t take it.

Deputy Chief Walsh:   Yes, and one of the things we’re talking about is that we have a mask mandate. So if you get the vaccine, will you still be required to wear a mask?  And if people don’t take the vaccine, will they have to wear a mask in perpetuity?

And if you contract the virus after you had the opportunity but declined to take the vaccine, how do we deal with your health and employment issues that may result? That’s definitely on our radar.

Wexler:  And can you tell us more about vaccinating jail inmates?

Deputy Chief Walsh:   Jail inmates are in Tier 2, so first we have to get through the 10 groups in Tier 1. And the challenge is, will they come into the jail and administer it?  The Health District hasn’t gotten to the point yet where they’ve decided on the logistics of that. We do have challenges in our jail.  Just last week, we had upwards of 700 inmates who had been positive.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.