A police sergeant almost died from Covid-19. He was unvaccinated.

CAMDEN, New Jersey. No one thought that Frank Talarico Jr. would survive. Not his doctors, his nurses, or his wife, a physician assistant who works part-time at a hospital in Camden, New Jersey, where he spent 49 days fighting to survive Covid-19.

A 47-year-old police sergeant, he has not been vaccinated against the coronavirus. Unconvinced of the merits of the vaccine, he believed he was young and healthy enough to deal with whatever illness the virus might cause.

He was wrong.

“If it opens anyone’s eyes, so be it,” Sergeant Talarico said recently at his home in Pennsauken, New Jersey, about five miles northeast of Camden. He plans to get the vaccine as soon as the doctors who saved his life at Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital give him final medical clearance.

“If I had been vaccinated,” he said, “I must think that I would not have gotten sick the way I did.”

While policing inherently involves the potential for violent or lethal confrontations, over the past two years, Covid-19 has become the leading cause of death for law enforcement officers in the United States.

When Covid vaccines were first offered in December 2020, law enforcement officers — frontline workers who, like doctors and nurses, must work closely with people in a crisis — were prioritized for vaccines that have been shown to significantly reduce risk serious illnesses. and death.

But over the next year, as some police unions tried to block vaccination mandates, at least 301 police, sheriff and correctional officers died of complications from Covid-19, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial, a non-profit organization that tracks deaths in the line of duty. Since January, Covid has continued to outpace other leading causes of death in the line of duty.

“It’s not just a little more than the death toll from gunshots and traffic accidents,” said Troy Anderson, a retired Connecticut State Police Sergeant who is currently the memorial’s director of safety and welfare. “It’s head and shoulders above.”

“It is inconceivable that we are still here,” he added.

Sergeant Talarico’s trials began on Christmas Eve, when omicron infections were rapidly spreading across the country, flooding hospitals and pushing the workforce almost to breaking point.

Before it was all over, the trooper, who had less than a year to retire after 24 years on the job, was hospitalized twice.

After being taken to the hospital a second time, he had a foot-long clot removed from his lung, a procedure that prevented certain death but caused his heart to nearly stop beating. He was on extended life support while he was still on the operating table. For two days the machine did the work of his heart and lungs.

Soon his kidneys began to fail and he needed dialysis.

One of the many poignant moments was the day his daughter, a 19-year-old college freshman, visited him, and they both feared it might be their last goodbye. Conscious, but hooked up to a ventilator, Sergeant Talarico was unable to speak.

“He was trying to speak words around the breathing tube,” said Jackie Whitby, a cardiac nurse who was also in the room. “He had tears in his eyes. She had tears in her eyes.”

Retelling the story over two months later, Sergeant Talarico began to cry again.

About half of the 14 officers in his Merchantville, New Jersey police department have been vaccinated, he said. The head of the police department did not return calls.

Sergeant Talarico said he tried to convince reluctant colleagues to get vaccinated.

“I say, ‘Just look at me and see what I’ve been through,'” he said.

Many of the largest police departments in the country, including Los Angeles, New York and newarkrequired employees to be vaccinated. Correctional officers in New Jersey were also ordered to shoot or risk being fired.

In Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, nine police officers have died from Covid-19. But there were no deaths from Covid since the city’s vaccination mandate was implemented in September after unsuccessful lawsuit police forces and firefighters.

According to Brian O’Hare, Newark’s director of public safety, approximately 96 percent of Newark’s public safety personnel have now received at least two shots of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, or one shot of Johnson & Johnson.

The last Newark Department of Public Safety employee to die from Covid was Richard T. McKnight, a 20-year-old detainee processing officer. He had not been vaccinated, said Mr. O’Hara, who spoke at the funeral.

Within days of Mr. McKnight’s death in August, his wife, who was ill with Covid, also died, Mr O’Hare said.

“Their 9-year-old daughter was left without parents,” he said.

The 340-bed Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes hospital was treating 26 Covid patients on the day Sergeant Talarico was first admitted to the hospital. Within two weeks, 81 patients were hospitalized with the virus.

“January was the worst month of my career,” said Dr. Vivek Sailam, a cardiologist who has worked at Our Lady of Lourdes for 14 years.

As Sergeant Talarico began to slowly recover against all odds, the staff began to rally around him, referring to him as their “miracle patient”.

“Get well, I’m inviting you to dinner,” said Dr. Sailam to Sergeant Talarico as he was off the ventilator for the second time.

Nurse Sean McCullough developed a letter board system that allowed Sergeant Talarico to communicate during intubation. Physiotherapist Wendy Hardesty insisted that he be strong enough to climb the three steps to his home before being discharged a second time on February 18.

“The mental trauma these nurses had and what they witnessed is the amount of death and agony. This is what everyone needs,” Dr. Sailam said. “Everyone needed this win.”

After a three-week hospital stay with pneumonia over Christmas, Sergeant Talarico was discharged, but was so weak that his wife, Christine Lynch, placed folding chairs throughout the house “so he could do it from a chair in the living room and rest before going to the bathroom.”

One day at 5 am, when he was struggling to breathe, she again called an ambulance.

He was re-hospitalized with a foot-long clot in his lungs. Known as a pulmonary embolism, it has become a common side effect of Covid-19 in hospitalized patients.

device used to remove it has only been available since 2018, said Dr. Joseph Brody, who said the new technology allowed him to extract the embolism virtually intact.

If that hadn’t been possible, said Dr. Brody, “he probably wouldn’t have survived.”

Sergeant Talarico and Ms. Lynch, his second wife, had been married for less than a year when he was told in late December that he had contracted the virus from a colleague. Soon the newlyweds both fell ill.

Ms. Lynch, a medical assistant who was vaccinated, said she initially shared her husband’s reluctance to get vaccinated. Sergeant Talarico said he thought the approval of the vaccine was rushed and questioned its safety.

In retrospect, he said he wished 33-year-old Ms Lynch would “kick his ass” to get the shot. If he was older and had other health risk factors besides high blood pressure, she said.

Before falling ill, Sergeant Talarico said he had trained regularly and had participated in combat for three years. Uniform Police Toura three-day bike ride to Washington held each May in honor of fallen officers as their names are added to memorial in the capital.

“I have been healthy all my life,” he said. “I guess I just had the mentality that if I got it, I would be one of those people who had it easy. And it definitely wasn’t.”

Tom Buckley, senior vice president of the hospital, estimated that the billable cost of treating a patient like Sergeant Talarico would be approximately $400,000 to $500,000; Sergeant Talarico said he did not receive a final invoice from his insurance company for his treatment.

About three weeks after he was released from the hospital for good, Sergeant Talarico returned with bagels, pizza, and a promise to the staff who were fighting for his life. “He told us he would get the shot,” said Corraine Newman, director of medical services.

The gesture brought Ms Whitby, who had a day off but was contacted via FaceTime, to tears.

“He’s a cop and I’m a nurse – we’re essentially risking our lives and putting other people first,” she said.

“For him to say, ‘You know what? I’m going to get the vaccine as soon as I can.”

“I feel like he’s supporting us.”