Orange County sheriff staff are getting hit with COVID-19 illnesses at a much higher rate than other large county departments, and are by far the largest share of pandemic-related worker’s compensation costs the county has paid so far, according to county data obtained through a records request by Voice of OC.

Sheriff staff, who had the lowest self-reported vaccination rate – at 16% – among county employees as of the latest available data from August, are around 20% of the county government workforce.

Yet they account for nearly half of the county worker’s compensation claims for COVID illnesses – $1.4 million of the $3 million total, and about 950 of the roughly 2,000 claims so far – according to county data provided this week.

Voice of OC followed up two weeks ago to request updated vaccination rate data, but the county has not provided it yet.

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The next biggest department for COVID worker’s comp costs is the Social Services Agency, which has more employees than the Sheriff’s Department, but half as many Covid-related claims and costs.

Many Social Services Agency employees work directly with the public and some visit houses to conduct wellness checks on children and seniors.

The high sheriff’s figures, which have privately drawn concern from county leaders, have prompted questions about what’s driving the department’s higher COVID rates and what can be done to better protect workers.

Sheriff officials didn’t have answers to questions Wednesday about whether it’s related to lower vaccination rates, the indoor work environment at jails – or both – and whether managers have analyzed the data to better protect workers’ health.

Department spokeswoman Carrie Braun said she’d have a response after getting further clarification from county officials about the worker’s compensation data.

In a statement, she noted that both sworn and non-sworn sheriff staff have been serving in-person throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They have worked tirelessly to provide for the safety of Orange County residents both in the jail and on the streets. Unlike other types of jobs, law enforcement is not a public service that can be provided remotely,” Braun wrote.

“The Department has implemented COVID-19 safety measures consistent with guidelines provided by public health officials for the health and safety of our 3,800 employees.”

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The sheriff’s deputies’ union’s president didn’t respond to a phone message for comment. 

The union previously pushed back against a state mandate requiring jailhouse deputies to be vaccinated.

Coronavirus infections at work were the leading cause of death of American police officers last year as well as the first half of this year.

No OC sheriff staff are reported to have died from COVID-19, though law enforcement officers in neighboring counties have died from the virus.

Among the County of Orange workplaces with active COVID outbreaks this summer were the Sheriff’s Department central jail and headquarters complex in Santa Ana, according to county data.

The workers’ compensation costs include medical care and lost wages due to being out on sick leave, county spokeswoman Molly Nichelson said in response to Voice of OC’s questions.

The county will ultimately cover the costs with federal pandemic response funds it received under the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan Act, she added.

Previously, county supervisors allocated about $90 million of the CARES Act Covid response dollars to the Sheriff’s Department, the vast majority of which paid for salaries and benefits of existing staff at the county jails.

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The latest-available vaccination data showed the Sheriff’s Department had the lowest self-reported vaccination rate among county departments, as outbreaks continued hitting county workplaces in August.

At the time, just 16% of sheriff staff self-attested to being vaccinated, compared with 75% of Board of Supervisors staff and about 68% percent of the general population who were eligible for shots at the time, according to county data.

The worker’s comp cases have been ongoing in recent months.

Since June, county data shows sheriff staff have filed an additional 264 Covid-related worker’s comp claims, totaling $367,000.

In contrast, staff at the county Health Care Agency – which has about 80% as many employees as the Sheriff’s Department – filed just 15 new claims during the same period, totaling about $500 altogether, according to the county data.

[Click here to see the worker’s compensation data as of late June and here for the latest data as of the end of November.]

County health officials are now warning the region is heading into a winter Covid surge amid the much more contagious omicron variant, and are urging residents to get booster vaccinations and wear masks when indoors with people who live in different households.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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