The coronavirus is the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths for police and firefighters nationally, but no local fire or police departments mandate vaccinations.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in 2020, annual police officer deaths have tripled in general. In 2019, there were 155 deaths, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. Last year, there were 497, with 336 (67%) from the virus. Four of the seven Virginia officers who died last year in the line of duty last year died from the virus. None were local officers.
Statistics for on-duty firefighter deaths last year were unavailable, but the virus was the leading killer in 2020, according to the National Fire Protection Agency. Of the 140 deaths, none involving local firefighters, 78 (55%) were from COVID-19. Overall deaths nearly tripled from the 48 in 2019.
Firefighters and police frequently interact closely with the public and there has been a recent spike in covid hospitalizations nationally and locally due to the omicron variant. At the end of last month, there were 116 COVID patients at the 495-bed Winchester Medical Center. The number was similar to the daily average of 126 in January of last year before the vaccine roll out.
On Friday, there were a record 3,329 COVID patients in Virginia hospitals, according to the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association. It eclipsed the previous record of 3,201 in January of last year.
Despite the high rate of deaths and hospitalizations, sheriffs in Clarke and Frederick counties and Winchester said in emails that they prefer voluntary vaccinations and oppose vaccinate-or-test mandates. Unvaccinated Virgina State Police are required to take weekly tests. Frederick County Sheriff Lenny Millholland said deputies are encouraged to wear personal protective equipment such as masks when interacting with the public regardless of whether they're vaccinated.
"This is a personal choice that should be made by the employee," he said of vaccinations. "No one is required to get a flu shot."
"These are very personal decisions that should be made between employees and their doctors or whomever they are getting the information needed to make this decision," Clarke County Sheriff Tony Roper said. "We continue to evaluate the pandemic information available and will make decisions on these evaluations."
Winchester Sheriff Les R. Taylor said contrasting mandatory vaccinations to mandatory requirements that deputies wear bulletproof vests and safety belts is an invalid comparison.
"Personal protective equipment is different," said Taylor, who is vaccinated. "One can remove PPE when they get home or off duty."
Winchester Police Chief John R. Piper said city policy requires all unvaccinated employees, including officers, to wear masks in buildings or when social distancing isn't possible. Piper, who's vaccinated, hasn't taken a public position on mandating vaccinations and referred the subject to City Manager Daniel C. Hoffman.
City spokeswoman Amy Simmons said the city is not planning mandatory vaccinations or a vaccinate-or-test policy for employees like the one recently approved by Winchester Public Schools.
"[City Manager] Dan [Hoffman] and staff are monitoring state and federal mandates as they are released for guidance and requirements," she said.
Frederick County Fire Chief Steven Majchrzak said the voluntary approach has worked well for his department. He said unvaccinated firefighters are closely monitored but most — 111 of 136 firefighters — are vaccinated. He said the voluntary approach is based on mutual respect between firefighters and the public.
"Understanding we come into contact with both the sickest and most medically fragile people in our community — our employees take seriously the need to protect themselves and their patients," he said.
Majchrzak, who's vaccinated, said he's seen the "horrific toll" taken by the virus that killed about 834,000 Americans as of Friday, according to the John Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center and the Virginia Department of Health. Deaths included 666 people in the Lord Fairfax Health District which is comprised of Winchester and Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties.
Majchrzak noted nearly all deaths involved unvaccinated people.
"My decision to be vaccinated is not only to provide myself the best protection against serious illness or worse, but to provide the best assurance that I do not inadvertently become the cause of spreading the virus to others," he said.
While no local firefighters or police have died from the virus, some have been infected or had to quarantine due to being exposed to infected people. COVID-related absences cost the Winchester Fire and Rescue Department about 1,000 hours of time and the police department 340 hours.
"We have covered the lost time with overtime which has greatly impacted our budget and caused some of our members to work a significant number of hours," Winchester Fire Chief Jonathan Henschel said.