Covid was top line-of-duty death for US police for third year running in 2022 – The Guardian US

Report shows pace has slowed, however, with 70 law enforcement deaths recorded in the line of duty
Covid was the top cause of death in the line of duty for American law enforcement for the third year in a row in 2022, according to a recent report, though the pace has slowed.
When the pandemic first hit, many law enforcement officers did what they could to lower the risks of catching Covid-19 – taking some reports over the phone rather than in person, trying to limit contact within departments and with the public.
Working on the front lines made some face-to-face contact unavoidable – and, as a result, hundreds of law enforcement officers died as Covid swept through the US. In 2020, there were at least 346 confirmed Covid deaths in the line of duty, and at least 301 work-associated deaths from Covid in 2021.
The actual mortality rate from Covid among law enforcement is assuredly higher, due to undercounting when tests were scarce and because reports like these only include line-of-duty deaths.
The total number of Covid deaths in 2022 was significantly lower than the previous two years, with 70 deaths in the line of duty, but it still outpaced all other causes of mortality on the job, according to a report from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF).
“It’s encouraging to see that the number-one cause of death over the last three years running, Covid-19, has really dropped dramatically,” said Bill Alexander, NLEOMF’s executive director. “But the reality is that we’re still facing a significant number of men and women who are dying [from] Covid in connection with their job.”
As emergency measures enacted during the pandemic end, a key way of counting line-of-duty deaths from Covid will soon disappear, making it harder to discern the virus’s toll. It will also signal the loss of benefits for families of officers who die because they contract Covid in the course of their duties.
Protective service workers, including police officers, have had some of the highest Covid mortality rates of any occupation, according to a report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are also lasting impacts of the virus that may not be counted in tallies such as these. Long Covid is a major health concern, with an elevated risk of cardiac events, strokes and other serious illnesses following a Covid infection.
And the pandemic has also inflicted psychological harm, according to one study, with 58% of officers saying their mental wellbeing was affected a little, 14% reporting it was affected a lot and 2% who were badly affected by Covid.
For officers, “you still have to be out there on the streets, interacting directly with people – often with people who don’t have a lot of regard for your health,” said David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
But the risks haven’t been evenly distributed throughout the US.
The highest number of reported line-of-duty Covid deaths by far has been 223 deaths in Texas, or more than one-fifth of all US police deaths, according to a tally as of September 2022 by the Fraternal Order of Police. Texas is the second-most populous state in the country – but the most populous state, California, had only 72 line-of-duty deaths in the same time period.
Those officers often left behind children and families. Lonnie Sneed, 50, was training John Mestas, 45, who had started working at Double Oaks police department in Texas three months earlier. They both contracted Covid at work and they both died. Sneed had five children and one granddaughter, Mestas had four children.
In North Carolina, Michael Godwin, 41, caught Covid while working as a detective and died soon after. He never met the child he and his wife were expecting.
“Death still matters,” Dowdy said. “It should always matter, we should always care when people are dying … And I think it’s important for us to be asking why that is, and what can be done.”
Covid vaccines are very effective at preventing severe illness and death, especially among those who receive regular boosters. But it is not clear how many law enforcement officers across the country are currently vaccinated and boosted.
Some first responders protested vaccine mandates, threatening to quit if they were required to get the shots. That may have been more about the political climate than the vaccines themselves, experts said.
Officers may have been resistant to being told the vaccine was required, even if they did not oppose the shot itself – especially since they were facing increased oversight during a time of renewed scrutiny of police violence, and pushback on mandates underscored existing tensions within departments.
“There was a very small but vocal contingent of folks across the country who had questions,” Alexander said. “But I think the reality is that the vast, vast majority of police professionals, people in law enforcement, were eager to take advantage of a vaccine.”
As organizations struggle to protect law enforcement officers and other frontline workers, it will soon become more difficult to measure Covid deaths among police. The public safety officers’ benefits provided to families after line-of-duty deaths from Covid will expire at the end of 2023.
If the benefits aren’t renewed, Covid will no longer be considered a line-of-duty death – making it even harder to discern the ways Covid endangers law enforcement.
Once the national public health emergency ends, it could also become more difficult to access tests, vaccines and treatments.
Because of the nature of law enforcement work, which often requires sustained interactions with the public, losing track of the prevalence of Covid and measures to prevent it could also make it harder to protect the public being served.
Although Covid deaths are lower now than they were at the sharpest peaks, hundreds of Americans still die every day. Protecting the public and those who serve them still needs to be a priority, Alexander said.
“There’s no question in my mind we’re going to continue to have Covid deaths, certainly for the rest of my lifetime.”