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With state vaccination rates low, COVID has killed at least 33 Georgia cops this year

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The coronavirus pandemic has hit law enforcement agencies across the country. COVID took the lives of more officers in both 2020 and 2021 - in fact, more than any other cause of death. The problem is clear in Georgia, where vaccination rates are low and vaccine mandates are scarce. From member station WABE in Atlanta, Sam Whitehead reports.

SAM WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Tony Whitmire has had a tough time of it lately. He's chief of police for Lake City, a small suburban community southeast of Atlanta. Two members of his 16-person force died from COVID-19 about a month apart in late summer - officer Bryan Hawkins and Sergeant William Yancey.

TONY WHITMIRE: It left a pretty big hole in the department. These were our friends and our family. It was kind of tough, especially one right after the other.

WHITEHEAD: Whitmire remembers them fondly. Hawkins was kind to animals, he says, and was quick to help strays. He says if Yancey pulled over a driver without insurance, he'd take the time to show them how to sign up for coverage.

Whitmire says neither was vaccinated. It's not something he mandated as chief, though he did strongly encourage it.

WHITMIRE: I did have to go back and think, golly, I've had I mandated it, would they still be here? But that was a choice that they made and not something that I could've forced on them.

WHITEHEAD: Sergeant Todd Thomas was just months away from retirement when he died of COVID-19 in late September. He served on the police force of Griffin, a city about 40 miles south of Atlanta. Lieutenant Chip Johns says it was like losing a close relative.

CHIP JOHNS: Because you see these guys 12 hours a day. They become your family. And with Todd being part of that family, it's definitely a devastating loss for us.

WHITEHEAD: Johns says Thomas was partially vaccinated, and his death might have made officers more skeptical about getting the shot. Johns says most officers wouldn't get vaccinated, even if it was mandated. That would leave the city, in his words, very unprotected.

JOHNS: Forcing that by any government - it's going to definitely put them in a position where they wouldn't have coverage in the city.

WHITEHEAD: COVID-19 has killed 33 police officers, correctional officers and sheriff's deputies this year, accounting for more than three-quarters of all deaths, according to the Georgia Concerns of Police Survivors, a nonprofit that helps the families of deceased officers. Just 50% of Georgia residents are fully vaccinated, and there's not much appetite for vaccine mandates. Just a few cities have them for employees.

Janet Moon is head of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. She says the fear of mandates driving officers away is real.

JANET MOON: We're seeing a void of qualified candidates that are applying for our jobs, so we're all out there trying to compete for a very small pool of applicants for numerous open positions.

WHITEHEAD: She attributes officers' vaccine hesitancy to misinformation on social media and how the pandemic has been politicized. And Moon says departments across the state have tried other ways to protect officers - measures like masks and social distancing.

MOON: I think we've all tried to do the best we could with the information we had at the time, as things were changing, to try to keep the officers safe.

WHITEHEAD: Georgia hasn't seen the kind of public backlash to vaccination from law enforcement officers that cities like Chicago and New York have. But Rafiq Ahmad, head of the Georgia chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, still calls the resistance disturbing.

RAFIQ AHMAD: You would think that in law enforcement, we would be the group that sets the example by doing things that are beneficial to the community at large.

WHITEHEAD: Ahmad says what's needed is a mindset change. He says officers are trained to respond to threats and need to think of COVID-19 in the same way they think about a speeding vehicle or active shooter.

AHMAD: We've identified the threat. Then, the next logical thing is to do whatever is necessary to eliminate that threat.

WHITEHEAD: They also might need to reassess their own vulnerability. Ahmad says it's not uncommon for law enforcement officers to think of themselves as strong, sometimes invincible. He says the COVID-19 pandemic has shown them otherwise.

For NPR news, I'm Sam Whitehead in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.