BOISE — Though law enforcement and corrections officers have been eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine for a month, it’s unclear how many have done so in the Treasure Valley.
Local departments have not mandated that staff get the vaccine and have declined to provide the percentage of staff who have chosen to be immunized, saying the information is private or not tracked.
Law enforcement and correctional officers must encounter members of the public daily. Though agencies have put in place safety measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, officers were still among the first groups in Idaho to be prioritized for a vaccine, to protect both themselves and the community at large.
Correctional staff carry “one of the highest, if not the highest” risk of contracting the virus out of any other profession, according to a January report by Dr. Marc Stern of the American College of Correctional Physicians.
Because of that risk, a handful of law enforcement agencies nationwide are mandating that their employees be vaccinated. But there has not been a push for that in Idaho.
Employers can require that employees get the “COVID-19 vaccine and bar them from the workplace if they refuse,” the New York Times reported, citing U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance issued Dec. 16.
A survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum in December, which included 193 chief executives of the forum’s member law enforcement agencies, indicated only 3% of those agencies would be mandating staff get the vaccine.
Police1, an online news source geared toward law enforcement, surveyed 3,300 law enforcement officers in December; only 38% said they intended to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Many departments nationwide do already mandate certain vaccinations including tetanus, hepatitis, measles, mumps, rubella and flu immunizations, or issue medical requirements for health and fitness, according to the International Association of Police Chiefs.
Despite the importance of getting law enforcement personnel vaccinated against COVID-19, neither the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and its regional health districts nor state and local law enforcement agencies are tracking the number of law enforcement and correctional staff who have been inoculated.
Idaho State Police spokeswoman Lynn Hightower confirmed that COVID-19 vaccinations are not mandatory for ISP personnel and that the agency doesn’t keep records on those who get vaccinated.
“For those who choose to get the vaccine, that’s personal medical information and not tracked by the agency,” she wrote in an email.
The Ada County Sheriff’s Office declined to release a statistic on the number of officers who have chosen to get the vaccine, citing “private and protected medical information.”
However, state and local law enforcement generally is not considered a protected agency under the federal law restricting release of medical information. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states there are no restrictions on the use of disclosure of “de-identified health information,” which would include statistics.
The Ada County Sheriff’s Office clarified that the release of that information was prohibited under Idaho’s Public Records Act.
While the state law does prohibit the release of most personal and medical records without the written consent of the individual, it does not prohibit the release of a general statistic.
The Ada County Sheriff’s Office is not directly involved in the scheduling or administration of the vaccines, in tracking employees’ vaccination status or asking it be reported to the sheriff’s office, spokeswoman Andrea Dearden said.
“We do not collect and/or store employees’ medical records, so this is a moot point in this discussion,” she wrote in an email.
The department did put out a survey to all employees to gauge interest in the Ada County Paramedics’ vaccination clinic, “simply to help with dose count estimations,” and included a link to schedule appointments, Dearden said.
Jails and prisons, as congregate living settings, have seen increased rates of COVID-19 transmission just as long-term care centers have. In both types of settings, transmission is primarily introduced through the employees.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan Prison Policy Initiative reports that the “COVID-19 case rate is four times higher in state and federal prisons than in the general population — and twice as deadly.” Because of that criminal justice advocates have pushed for vaccinating both staff and prisoners. That’s also why it’s important to know how many law enforcement personnel are vaccinated.
Boise-based attorney Jane Gordon said Tuesday that the sheriff’s office and similar agencies are not protected by federal medical privacy laws and noted that the number of staff vaccinated is not “individually identifiable health information” as cited in federal guidance.
In small, rural agencies, providing statistics could lead to easy identification of the individual involved, Central District Health spokeswoman Christine Myron said.
“If there were just two people eligible for vaccine within that emergency services category and they had 50 percent participation, it would be quite easy for either individual to be identified as the one who did — or did not — opt to get vaccinated,” she wrote in an email.
However, the agencies that declined to provide statistics to the Idaho Press employ hundreds to more than 1,000 people, so that reasoning would not apply in those cases.
Gordon argued there is a “compelling public safety reason for people to know what percentage of officers are vaccinated. I would much rather be pulled over by a vaccinated cop than one who isn’t,” she said, noting that much of the general public has not been able to access the COVID-19 vaccine.
In Idaho, COVID-19 vaccinations aren’t the only preventative measure that has been slow to take hold in the law enforcement and corrections community. As the Idaho Press reported, the Idaho Department of Correction didn’t require its staff to wear masks until June 24.
Ada County’s mask mandate includes an exception for “on-duty law-enforcement officers, for whom wearing a face covering would create a risk to the person related to their work, as determined by local, state, or federal regulators or workplace safety guidelines.”
Attorney Nathan Olsen, based in Idaho Falls, said he ran into trouble getting information from departments out of Elmore County during a habeas corpus case last March in which over 40 inmates sued for release. He cited nearly identical reasoning in agencies’ refusal to release information on the number of positive COVID-19 cases and testing procedures in jails and prisons.
This included a refusal to release information based on the possibility that the public could “trace back to an individual person, and therefore that’s protected,” he said, calling the reasoning a tactic “to prevent information from getting out into the public about what’s really going on in these facilities.”
As for the lack of any state or local initiative to track whether law enforcement has been vaccinated, he said the philosophy appears to be “what we choose not to know won’t hurt us. It’s blissful ignorance.”
Locally, the Meridian Police Department said it had provided vaccination information to its officers but that “each individual makes their own choice on whether they want to receive the vaccine or not,” adding, “We are treating this vaccination like any other private health decision.”
Boise Police Department spokeswoman Haley Williams said staff were offered the vaccine through a county clinic but could still opt to get it through private providers. “Due to scheduling, many BPD officers were able to get it quicker elsewhere,” she wrote.
She referred further inquiries to the city’s human resources department, which did not respond to a request for information on the number of staff vaccinated.
Both the Nampa Police Department and Canyon County Sheriff’s Office were asked to share the number of staff vaccinated. The Sheriff’s Office answered that it would treat the inquiry like a public records request. Nampa PD did not respond by press time Wednesday.