Denver, CO

Should Denver Residents Be Concerned About Public Servants Refusing Vaccines?

Carolyn V. Murray

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Two deputy sheriffs in Denver dying from COVID-19 was far more than a local tragedy – it became a major national story. At a time when approximately 667 Americans are still dying every day from COVID-19, the tragedy of these two losses highlights a critical disagreement between the public health and political crusades to vaccinate as many Americans as possible and the antivaxxer movement.

The deputies worked in an extremely high-risk environment

Deputies James Herrera and Daniel Trujillo both worked at Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center in downtown Denver. Around the country, prisons and detention centers have been particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks, and this facility was no exception. They had suffered an active outbreak for over a year, beginning in April 2020. “Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data shows 1,261 COVID-19 cases at the detention center, with 107 of them among staff members.” With numbers that high, the possibility of contracting COVID-19 due to daily exposure to this environment starts to feel less like a mere possibility and more like a probability.

In a related matter, a representative for “The Denver Sheriff Department Lodge 27 of the Fraternal Order of Police said every member of its executive board except one had been infected with COVID and that some ‘are still suffering serious effects and complications,’ but Herrera was the first to die from COVID.”

So, more than one branch of Denver’s law enforcement agencies is succumbing to these alarming outbreaks. The two deputies who died watch hundreds of individuals around them get sick and there seemed to be no end to the COVID-19 spread at their workplace.

So why didn’t they get vaccinated?

Denver Department spokeswoman Daria Serna said that both deputies had been eligible for a vaccine since January.

We know in particular that Daniel Trujillo, the second officer who died, was loudly and profoundly opposed to both vaccines and masks. One of the reasons that his story has received so much coverage are the many social media posts that he wrote poking fun at others who chose to wear masks or get vaccinated. “I'll get it later on after y'all start growing apendages [sic] out of y'alls foreheads," he wrote, expressing his feelings on vaccinations. And “Before you shame me in public for not having a mask, ask yourself one simple question,” the post said. “Will this mask stop an uppercut?”

This isn’t terribly surprising. A lot of Americans feel the same way and have made the same decisions. Most of them have the freedom to take a pass on the vaccine if they’re strongly opposed to it.

But should Denver deputies and public servants be allowed to do the same?

Do some occupations carry special obligations?

So, you’re in line at 7-11 behind a Denver deputy and they sneeze or they cough. Or they turn around and joke with you about the weather or the lottery. And they laugh. Innocent and positive activities like laughing and singing are very effective ways to transmit coronavirus.

The point being, that this deputy’s refusal to get vaccinated and his disdain for masks might have exposed a number of people in his social circle and an unknowable number of random strangers to COVID-19 during the first few days after he got it, but before he was diagnosed.

I wasn’t willing to take any chances

Last March, I watched the alarming growth of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., but I watched it from a long distance. I had just spent five months in Mexico, working remotely, and was due to go back to the States at the end of April. I agonized for weeks over whether to return. And then I canceled my plane ticket and told my landlady that I might be staying for another full year.

Just a few days after I canceled that ticket, there was a union announcement that 100 flight attendants and forty-one pilots on my scheduled airlines had tested positive.

I obviously have no regrets about that cancellation, but I do have a lot of questions. The first can’t be answered by anyone because of the absence of contact tracing – but here it is. How many of the airline’s customers caught COVID-19 and subsequently took it home to their families, after being exposed to one of these 141 individuals? Every flight attendant had to have come into close range to thousands of people in a single week – it’s the nature of their job.

Why was this only being made public news after the outbreak had become so extensive? This was way before mandatory mask requirements on all flights, so the airlines knew when there were five cases and they knew when there were ten and when there were twenty. They also knew what they were exposing their own customers to.

Well, that was then and today, of course, the airlines know that the continuation of their industry relies on tight adherence to every public health measure regarding COVID-19, including employee vaccinations.

But the airline industry isn’t the only one with such extensive contact with the public. Law enforcement seems to have the same troubling potential for the rapid spread of COVID-19.

Those terrible losses cannot be undone

In the first few months of the pandemic, I read so many heartbreaking accounts of COVID-19 deaths. I put myself through the wringer time and time again, crying for people I would never meet. Listening to the anguished voices of their loved ones.

After a few months, I had to stop reading them. I had to distance myself from being immersed in never-ending grief. But the cases of these two men raise a conversation that should not be avoided. The nature of COVID-19 - its deadly problematic nature is that it has never been something that you can make a personal decision about that doesn’t affect anyone else. It’s not like eating junk food. It’s more like driving drunk.

The usefulness of that analogy is that if you drive drunk, you may wind up dead or you may wind up killing other people. Or a drunk driving accident could leave you with a serious disability that you have to live with for the rest of your life. Or you could inflict that lifelong hardship on innocent people.

Contracting COVID-19 as a result of decisions made, actions, or inactions…people will often argue long and loud that they have the right to take risks with their own lives. But given the information here, do you as a resident of this city feel entitled to have a say in whether or not the cops and deputies who serve Denver be required to protect themselves, via vaccine, and to protect you as well, from this relentless public health threat?

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At the moment, I'm highly interested in the ways in which we can cope and thrive during, after, and despite a global pandemic. My background is in sociology, education, and creative writing. If you were to scroll through the tabs on my laptop, you'd find music, travel, politics, longevity, and brain health.

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