LUBBOCK, Texas — Last July, Lynn County Sheriff Abraham Vega died from COVID-19, but the Texas Association of Counties didn’t consider it a line of duty death.
“We were told it would be a line of duty death as soon as he passed away,” said Sheriff Vega’s wife Rachel Vega.
But new legislation that advanced in Austin on Thursday could change that designation.
Sheriff Vega contracted COVID-19 while working at the Lynn County Sheriff’s Department, later dying from the illness.
“When we got the rejection letter it was just crushing,” said Vega. “Knowing that it had been a line of duty death in our belief.”
When a first responder dies in the line of duty, the family receives monetary compensation, coverage benefits, and they are honored at the state and national capital.
While more than 100 first responders in Texas have died from COVID-19, not all received a line of duty death designation, much like Sheriff Vega. But Senate Bill 22 changes that.
“I’m fighting for this cause, it’s what he deserves. So from July until now I’ve been fighting [and doing] everything I could do,” said Vega.
SB 22 establishes COVID-19 as a presumptive illness, which means it would be presumed that COVID-19 developed as a direct result of a first responder’s service.
This designation would allow families to receive line of duty death benefits.
When Vega heard the bill was one step closer to passing she said she felt like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
“I don’t even feel like I’ve been able to grieve. He’s been gone almost 11 months now and that’s been my focus just fighting for this,” Vega said. “Not that I’m ever going to be over this, but just that I can be at peace knowing that I don’t have this weight to carry anymore has been a great relief.”
But Vega still wishes Governor Abbott had signed this into law long ago, and calls on him to do it now.
“He could have done this a year ago. Trump signed it a year ago. I hope he does just automatically sign it now,” said Vega.
Vega hopes to ensure the sacrifices Sheriff Vega made for his community won’t soon be forgotten.
“It’s really for him. Just the honor that I think he deserves, to be with those who did sacrifice their lives in the line of duty because he was fighting and protecting us at the end,” said Vega.
The bill passed in the house Thursday, 139-6. Those opposed, citing that it could be difficult to prove a specific connection between someone’s service and their exposure to COVID.
If the bill passes it would take effect on September 1. The house added an amendment to the bill that would end the legislation in September of 2023, allowing it to be reevaluated.
The bill will need to be approved by the State Senate once more before heading to the governor’s desk to be signed.