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'My dad didn't have a fighting chance': Covid is leading cause of death among law enforcement

"It doesn't make me invulnerable," said one police officer who has been vaccinated against Covid-19. "But I'd rather have as much protection as I can."
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Octavia Tokley said she and her husband, Erin, were grateful this year that their jobs made them among the first people eligible to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

He was a police officer and, at the time, she was working remotely as a teacher.

Erin Tokley was planning to get his first dose on March 11, his wife said. But he never made it.

Tokley, a 24-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, died of Covid-19 on March 3. His funeral was held eight days later — the same day he had planned to get the first dose.

Octavia Tokley said the pain she feels from the death of her husband, with whom she has a 5-year-old daughter, Amethyst, has been compounded by vaccine hesitancy and outright refusal, including among those who work in law enforcement and the unions that represent them.

"I wish that they saw it as another means of protection," she said. "And I wish that they saw the vaccine as a way that they are protecting and serving the people that they work with."

Octavia Tokley lost her husband Erin to Covid-19 in March. He was a 24-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department.
Octavia Tokley lost her husband, Erin, to Covid-19 in March. He was a 24-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department.Courtesy Octavia Tokley

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund said in a recent midyear report that Covid-19 is the leading cause of death for officers nationwide. According to the nonprofit, from Jan. 1 to June 30, 71 officers died of Covid-related causes, more than firearm and traffic-related incidents combined. The number has continued climbing since the report was released, with 133 officers having died of Covid-19 to date this year, the nonprofit said.

Last year, more law enforcement officers died of Covid-19 than any other cause, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

Many police officers, including Erin Tokley, died before a vaccine was widely available or before they could get vaccinated, and while performing jobs that put them in close contact with their communities as the virus spread. But others have lost their lives as people around the country, including law enforcement officers, resist vaccination.

Even as Covid-19 surpasses other causes of death for law enforcement officers, many police unions, including in Chicago, New York and Seattle, have fiercely opposed vaccination mandates.

At a coronavirus briefing Monday, New Jersey State Police Superintendent Col. Patrick Callahan said he believed officers' reluctance to get vaccinated had contributed to the apparent Covid-19 related deaths last week of 22 law enforcements officers nationwide.

Last week, firefighters and police officers from across New Jersey attended a protest against vaccine mandates in Newark, the state's largest city. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka's vaccine requirement for city workers has been challenged in court by a number of unions representing police officers and firefighters.

"It just really makes me feel really disappointed that they see so many of their brothers and sisters in blue die from this virus and they have the opportunity to take a stand for them and to live for them in their honor or just for themselves, for their families, but won't," Tokley said.

The Philadelphia Police Department told NBC News in August that it did not know how many of its officers were vaccinated.

Tokley said that she and her husband did not need encouragement to get vaccinated. They had resolved to protect themselves in any way they could.

From the start of the pandemic, Tokley said she would send her husband to work each night with a book bag filled with gloves, masks and Lysol wipes and spray to try to protect him from the coronavirus.

Amethyst was the first of the three to show symptoms and to test positive. Tokley said she and her husband, who had two children from a previous relationship and was a reverend at Calvary Baptist Church in West Philadelphia, suspected he had contracted Covid-19 on duty.

Amethyst, however, initially blamed herself for her father's death, Tokley said.

"She knew that we found out about her first and she said, 'It's my fault that daddy isn't alive,'" Tokley said.

The doctor who treated Erin while he was in the hospital assured Amethyst she was not to blame, Tokley said. Erin is one of six Philadelphia police officers to have died of Covid-19 as of Monday.

Mark Hall Sr.
Mark Hall Sr.Courtesy Jasmine Hall

Jasmine Hall, whose father, Mark Hall Sr., a police officer in New Orleans, died of Covid-19 last year, has become a vaccine advocate in her family and a supporter of vaccination mandates.

"While there are still breakthrough cases, it gives you a fighting chance," said Hall, 29, a props assistant. "And my dad didn't have a fighting chance."

Mark Hall Sr. died on April 30, 2020, at age 53. His family believes the 30-year police veteran would have gotten inoculated against Covid because he did get the flu vaccine every year.

As part of his job at the start of the pandemic, Hall helped to transport homeless people who gathered under the Claiborne Avenue Bridge to hotels, his daughter said.

Sonya Hall said her husband went to an urgent care four times after he suspected he had contracted Covid-19 on duty, but he was refused tests each time because of a policy that limited the number of times a person could be tested.

"I do not believe that he got the best care, but I understand at the time why that was," Jasmine Hall said. "No one knew what Covid was and what it does to the body."

Her father eventually spent nearly a month in the hospital with the coronavirus. He died months before a vaccine was available.

The Halls are all now vaccinated against Covid-19. Sonya said that even though she is not entirely sold on the effectiveness of the vaccines, she was inoculated at the urging of her children, because she has an autoimmune disease and because 17 people close to her have died of Covid-19.

She said her children "are for the vaccines," including Mark Hall Jr., who graduated from the New Orleans Police Department's training academy shortly after his father's death.

The city of New Orleans requires that police officers either be vaccinated or tested weekly.

Mark Hall, 24, said he didn't need the city or police department to force him to get vaccinated, despite encountering colleagues within the department and people in the city who he believes are not taking the virus seriously.

"It doesn't make me invulnerable," he said of the vaccine. "But I'd rather have as much protection as I can."