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Policing during pandemic means less in-person contact, greater anxiety

  • Officer David Wallant of the Barre Police Department on Monday, February 9, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger VtDigger — GLENN RUSSELL

Published: 3/6/2021 5:45:06 PM
Modified: 3/6/2021 10:49:04 PM

Not only did Barre City Police Officer David Wallant have to adapt to changes in his duties because of COVID-19 — so did people in his community.

Wallant, 25, said that when the pandemic hit last March, the department quickly adopted new procedures to help prevent the spread of the virus. Among them: responding to fewer calls in person — except those involving violence or the threat of it — and handling more cases over the phone.

“They would get upset that we wouldn’t come down in person,” Wallant said of certain people filing complaints. “We’ve had people just hang up on us.”

The precautions in Barre City were similar to those adopted by many Vermont police departments in the first days of the pandemic, such as allowing only one officer at a time inside a cruiser and having officers sanitize their cruisers at the end of each shift.

And, when police did go to an incident, persuading people to don face coverings wasn’t always easy.

“There were times people would get upset if we told them to put on a mask,” he said.

Nor did they much like that he was wearing a mask and keeping at a 6-foot distance from them.

Not until the fall, when COVID-19 cases spiked in Washington County, did more people start taking the virus seriously and following precautions to prevent the spread.

“People began to get in the routine of wearing masks and social distancing,” he said. “Us showing up with masks became normalized; it became the new normal.”

Wallant, who joined the Barre City Police Department in September 2019, said the pandemic meant more time in his cruiser and less time dealing with people face-to-face.

“It’s changed what we do because we are limiting as many traffic stops as we can,” he said. “We are enforcing traffic laws, but we’re limiting it to serious offenses to prevent us from having unnecessary contact with people.”

Wallant said he wears a face covering whenever interacting with people and carries masks to offer to those who don’t have them. Still, he said, anxiety runs high, not only for himself but also for those he comes in contact with.

He said his greatest worry is exposing others to the virus, and the fear of contracting or spreading COVID-19 adds more strain to an already stress-packed job.

There are times when physical contact with another person can’t be avoided, such as when taking a person into custody, he said. He wears personal protective equipment, such as gloves and a mask. “It protects us to an extent, but not completely,” Wallant said.

According to the Vermont Department of Health, 10 COVID-19 cases have been associated with police departments, but health officials know that’s probably not the correct number.

“Of note is that our system doesn’t readily track and summarize individual occupations,” said Ben Truman, a state health department spokesperson. “What we know for sure are outbreak-associated cases.”

Law enforcement agencies, he added, may know more about individual cases.

Indeed, the Vermont State Police, the state’s largest law enforcement agency, is aware of about 20 COVID-19 cases among officers, dispatchers and civilian employees, according to Adam Silverman, the agency spokesperson.

In December, about a half-dozen members of the Bennington town police force, including Chief Paul Doucette, contracted the virus.

In some instances, multiple police officers in one department were exposed while on duty to a person who tested positive for COVID-19. Those officers had to quarantine but didn’t end up testing positive. In June, eight Rutland City police officers had to be quarantined for several days after an infected person was arrested, but none of the officers came down with the virus.

Wallant, the Barre City police officer, said he contracted the virus in mid-December — but not because of his work. Instead, he said, his girlfriend had been attending the Vermont Police Academy, and got the virus in an outbreak that shut down the police training facility in Pittsford for several weeks. In all, 19 of the 23 recruits got the virus.

Wallant and his girlfriend had to quarantine for two weeks before returning to work.

“I was lucky to just have flu-like symptoms and a mild fever for a couple of days,” he said. His girlfriend had almost no symptoms at all.

“I’m doing much better now,” Wallant said. “I’m 100%.”

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