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Coronavirus

Ouray police officers turned down the coronavirus vaccine. Then almost the entire department fell ill.

Police officers and other responders were among the first people eligible in Ouray County to get the vaccine when it arrived at the end of December. Very few took the shot.

Ouray, a high-altitude town in southern Colorado, leaned on a sole part-time police officer to patrol for week when the rest of the police department was felled by coronavirus.(Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

When Ouray Police Chief Jeff Wood started feeling sick on Monday, Feb. 1, he brushed it off as a sinus infection.

The mild fever, muscle aches and minor congestion that he noticed for two days seemed more like a sinus infection than anything to worry about, and by Wednesday, he felt better.

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He attended a training that day with the department’s four full-time officers, where he wore a mask and kept his distance, he said.

On the advice of the Ouray County Public Health Agency, he was tested for the next day. By Saturday, the results had come back: positive for coronavirus.

As he began to feel sicker over the weekend, the dominoes began to fall across the department. While law enforcement officers were among the first to become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, most in Ouray County have not opted to get vaccinated, including Wood and most of his department.

All were instructed to quarantine, leaving the department without a single full-time officer who could continue working.

He and one other officer tested positive, and two developed symptoms despite testing negative, making them probable COVID cases. The fifth officer tested negative and did not become sick.

Bernie Chism, one of six part-time and reserve officers, became a one-man band for the next week, working 12-hour days until the rest of the department could return.

Chism, a former officer in Montrose and San Miguel County and a candidate for the chief’s job before Wood was hired, has worked as a part-time officer in Ouray since 2019. Wood said he is “by far my most common part-time officer,” and had the most availability to step up last week.

Coronavirus swept through Ouray’s police department, leaving a single part-time officer, Bernie Chism, at right, shown here in a 2020 photo with Chief Jeff Wood, covering the town solo for a week. (Ouray Police Department)

Officers who were isolated at home could still take calls and address some reports over the phone, Wood said. When calls required a physical response, Chism took them, and the Ouray County Sheriff’s Office and Ridgway Marshal’s Office offered backup help.

Wood, who first began showing symptoms on Feb. 1, returned to working in person on Feb. 11, and the rest of the department returned after completing their quarantine periods and recovering from their illnesses. The department consulted with Public Health Director Tanner Kingery on protocols and everyone returned to work by Feb. 18, he said.

While he has recovered and hasn’t had lasting effects, he advised people to take the virus seriously.

The rapid spread of the virus through his department was alarming, he said. Most of the time, there are only one or two people in the office at a time with space to spread out, and he was wearing a mask when he was symptomatic at work, he said. “I think the takeaway is, this thing is pretty contagious.”

It’s also made him reconsider the COVID-19 vaccine, which he declined earlier this winter. Police officers and other responders were among the first people eligible in the county to get the vaccine when it arrived at the end of December.

Wood decided not to get the vaccine at the time, citing his age, lack of comorbidities and concerns about long-term effects. “The unknown of any potential long-term issues outweighed the immediacy of me taking the vaccine,” he said, an opinion “that was the consensus of most of the officers here.”

When he surveyed the department, including full- and part-time employees, only 20%, or two people, indicated they wanted the vaccine, he said, though he’s not sure how many ultimately decided to get it.

“I’m 55 years old, and I thought it probably should go to the health care workers and elderly first,” he said. “If I had to do it over again, I’d probably take the vaccine,” rather than deal with the respiratory issues that he experienced from COVID.

Three of nine employees from the Ouray County Sheriff’s Office opted to get the vaccine, Undersheriff Tammy Stroup said.

None of the deputies at the Ridgway Marshal’s Office opted to get the vaccine, according to Marshal Shane Schmalz. The agency currently employs Schmalz, two full-time deputies and a part-timer.

Schmalz attributed most of his decision to wait to scarcity of vaccines. Ouray County has, until recently, only received 100 doses per week, and he felt others needed to be protected first.

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“I felt like the more at-risk people should get it first before people like me get it,” he said, adding he’s pretty healthy and stays home aside from work to limit his exposure.

So far, the marshal’s office hasn’t experienced deputies becoming ill or testing positive for the virus, but it has endured quarantines.

One deputy was out for 19 days due to a direct exposure to the virus, Schmalz said. Though the department has mutual aid agreements with the police department and the sheriff’s office, having one or two people taken out of the work rotation impacts the department.

As vaccines become more available, Schmalz said he may reconsider his decision to wait.

“Maybe it’s not too bad of an idea pretty soon to do it,” he said.

Liz Teitz is a journalist with Report for America, a nonprofit program focused on supporting journalism in underserved areas. Email erin@oumynews.com to make a tax-deductible donation to support her work.FacebookTwitter

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