Widow urges vaccines at funeral of Fla. officer who died of COVID-19

“This was not Mike’s time,” Karen Weiskopf said. “He made a risky decision not to vaccinate”


By Natalie Weber
Tampa Bay Times

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Standing in front of roughly 100 family members and officers in The Coliseum, the police officer’s widow offered a warning at her husband’s funeral Tuesday.

“I promise you,” Karen Weiskopf said of the coronavirus, “it’s grueling, dangerous — and it will destroy you.”

Karen Weiskopf, the widow of St. Petersburg, Florida, police Officer Michael Weiskopf, holds the ceremonial flag in her lap during her husband’s funeral at The Coliseum, on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, in St. Petersburg. Weiskopf was unvaccinated and died from complications from COVID-19.
Karen Weiskopf, the widow of St. Petersburg, Florida, police Officer Michael Weiskopf, holds the ceremonial flag in her lap during her husband’s funeral at The Coliseum, on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, in St. Petersburg. Weiskopf was unvaccinated and died from complications from COVID-19. (Martha Asencio Rhine/Tampa Bay Times/TNS)

Her husband, St. Petersburg police Officer Michael Weiskopf, died Aug. 27 after about a month of battling COVID-19. He was 52.

“This was not Mike’s time,” Karen Weiskopf said. “He made a risky decision not to vaccinate.”

For months, she tried to persuade her husband to get the vaccine. He gave it serious consideration before he grew ill and wished he had been vaccinated when he got the virus, she said. In the hospital, Michael and Karen Weiskopf cried and prayed. But it was too late.

Before the funeral, the Department of Health offered coronavirus vaccines starting at 9 a.m. in a tent outside the Coliseum. Karen Weiskopf wanted to use her husband’s death as a way to encourage others to get vaccinated, police said.

St. Petersburg resident Tina Burns stopped by the tent before the funeral to get a dose of the Pfizer vaccine. The 61-year-old doesn’t work for the St. Petersburg Police Department and she didn’t know Weiskopf. But her father was a police officer, she said, and she heard about the vaccine site while watching the news.

“I had so many concerns,” she said of the vaccine. But a family member of hers had tested positive for COVID-19, Burns said, and after gathering information about the vaccine, she decided to get the shot. She said she wanted to be protected so she could make more memories with her family members.

St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway addressed the media outside the vaccine tent before the funeral. He said several officers had decided to get vaccinated in the days following Weiskopf’s death, though he didn’t know exactly how many officers had received the vaccine. Holloway urged his officers to get a coronavirus vaccine — just as he had done a few days ago, following a procession in Weiskopf’s honor Friday.

“If you don’t want to do it for yourself, do it for your co-workers, do it for your family — but do it for someone,” Holloway said. At that point in the morning, seven people had stopped by the vaccine tent for a shot, he said, but that wasn’t enough. Until everyone is vaccinated, Holloway said, there will be more deaths.

At Weiskopf’s funeral, friends offered their memories. Officers saluted his casket during the eulogies, and Rabbi Philip Weintraub offered reflections. Participants read from Psalms and the book of Job.

According to his sergeant, Michael Schade, Officer Weiskopf was passionate about his job in traffic enforcement. He liked to joke around and was the first one to get into the office every day, working with the lights off until Schade arrived. Fellow officers teased Weiskopf, calling him a bull in a china shop, Schade recalled, reflecting on a spectacle Weiskopf caused while operating a jet ski.

“He brought a lot of laughter to the office,” Schade said.

Beyond his job as a police officer, Weiskopf also had worked as a chiropractor, firefighter and EMT.

John Forzano, a friend of Weiskopf, said his friend loved training others and teaching.

“He never judged, he only offered help,” Forzano said. “You can’t ask for more than that in a friend.”

The first part of the service concluded with the recitation of the kaddish, a Jewish prayer. Then mourners stepped outside for the traditions of a police funeral, including the presentation of colors, a 21-gun salute, a bugler playing taps, a riderless horse and the presentation of the flag.

According to the Fraternal Order of Police, 581 officers have died of COVID-19 as of Aug. 27, including 45 officers in Florida. Weiskopf is one of three law enforcement officers in the Tampa Bay area to have died of the virus recently. Polk County Sheriff’s Office deputy Christopher Broadhead died on Aug. 23 and Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Douglas Clark died on Aug. 26.

The St. Petersburg Police Department is not tracking coronavirus vaccines within its ranks, and a Tampa Bay Times survey in August found that half of the Tampa Bay area’s 12 largest public safety agencies were not tracking vaccination rates. Among agencies that were keeping track of the numbers, vaccination rates ranged from 27% to 60%.

There are 1,255 city employees who have voluntarily reported being vaccinated, said Ben Kirby, spokesperson for Mayor Rick Kriseman.

Chief Holloway said a vaccine mandate for officers would be determined by the mayor’s office. The city of Tampa has mandated vaccines for all of its employees, including municipal police. However, the city of St. Petersburg decided against requiring vaccines for employees earlier this month. The discussion on whether to enforce a mandate is ongoing, Kirby said.

During his concluding remarks during Weiskopf’s funeral, Rabbi Weintraub warned officers of the effects of COVID-19. It can make you feel as though you’re underwater, drowning. Lead to kidney failure. In September 2020, it had killed more law enforcement officers than any other cause that year.

“Get your vaccine,” he said, comparing it to other forms of protective gear that officers use. “That’s your vest.”

Weiskopf was a mensch, Weintraub said — a Yiddish word for a kind and compassionate person. He didn’t have to die.

“This is an unnecessary tragedy,” he said. “This is a preventable tragedy.”

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