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The risks rural officers face from COVID-19

As all first responders gear up to respond to the impact of a global pandemic, rural and small agencies face significant challenges unique to their communities


Every police officer is on the front lines of the battle against the coronavirus.

Photo/El Dorado COunty Sheriff’s Office

Rural law enforcement agencies make up a significant chunk of the officers in our nation, and they’re being left behind in the fight against COVID-19.

Congress passed bills offering financial help, paid time off and resources for many U.S. workers, but last-minute amendments gutted the clauses that would have made an actual difference for small-town officers by excluding first responders and medical personnel.

Small departments operate with smaller staffs and smaller budgets than their city counterparts, some so small that they’re already exempt from FLSA regulations governing scheduling and overtime in cities. This leaves officers vulnerable to exhaustion, illness and stress. Unlike larger agencies with deeper benches, there’s often no one to rotate in for days off in a crisis, or when an officer is injured or falls ill.

Advocates like nonprofit The Wounded Blue are pushing back by asking that departments recognize all COVID-19 infections as a presumptive illness for workers’ comp purposes. This concept is especially important to officers in small, underfunded agencies where they may work without basics like ballistic vests, let alone adequate PPE for protection against infectious diseases like COVID-19.

It’s even more critical for officers working in states that default to federal OSHA standards, which specifically exempt government agencies from compliance, leaving them no recourse when lapses in training or safety equipment leave them exposed and vulnerable to injury and illness.

Every police officer is on the front lines of the battle against the coronavirus pandemic since our understanding of how the virus is transmitted is very limited; however, rural officers also find themselves playing multiple roles in their underserved communities, volunteering as firefighters and cross-training in EMS. A single deputy forced into isolation by a COVID-19 exposure can be a catastrophic staffing shortage for a small department. One facing hospitalization, critical care and a long recovery is even more disastrous.

Even as urban jails contemplate releasing inmates in response to the crisis, rural corrections deputies work with the added stressor of old, often unsafe facilities without the capacity to isolate inmates. Crowding, ancient laundries and failing sewer connections are compounded by a near-complete lack of access to medical personnel. In some localities, a weekly visit from a physician assistant or nurse practitioner serves as the only resource.

Rural hospitals have faced round after round of closures amid financial strain over the last 10 years. No local hospital also means that testing for COVID-19 is unlikely to be locally available.

The lack of rural hospitals slows response to a rapidly evolving landscape, and forces long transports to care by the few available ambulances in underfunded areas. Transporting an inmate for medical care is expensive, resource-intensive and time-consuming, even if it’s done by a corrections officer rather than via ambulance.

Even in communities where hospitals are still available, the number of ICU beds and ventilators is completely inadequate for projected cases of COVID-19. In large swathes of the nation, a handful of very small hospitals serve very large geographical areas.

As all first responders gear up to respond to the impact of a global pandemic, rural and small agencies are faced with problems unique to their communities. While geography can insulate a remote community to some extent, it’s not complete. State roads and interstate highways running through small towns mean a regular source of potential exposure, without the resources to deal with it.

Rural communities also have their own unique complications – older populations, disproportionately higher incidence of meth and heroin addiction, and high poverty levels. Now factor in shuttered schools, required social distancing and a lack of available childcare and all the elements for a workplace disaster, as well as a medical catastrophe, are present.

The effects of fatigue and stress on law enforcement are thoroughly researched and proven. Now is the time to admit the risk present in all our communities, rural and urban, and get ahead of it.

Sheriffs, police chiefs, and state and local leaderships must advocate for immediate augmentation of resources for all agencies and officers. Every agency in the nation is facing tremendous strain. While urban agencies respond by adding shifts and moving officers from specialty assignments to patrol, rural agencies are already stripped down and serving multiple roles. Don’t leave them behind in this fight.

Kathleen Dias writes features and news analysis on topics of concern to law enforcement professionals serving in rural and remote locations. She uses her background in writing, teaching and marketing to advocate for professional levels of training and equipment for rural officers, open channels of communication for isolated departments, and dispel myths about rural policing. She’s had a front-row seat observing rural agencies – local, state and federal – from the Sierra foothills to California’s notorious Emerald Triangle, for more than 30 years.