‘Unprecedented surge’ in COVID cases among L.A. police, firefighters, medics

More than 1,000 first responders in the Los Angeles region were ill or at home quarantining this week, city officials said


By Kevin Rector and Richard Winton
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — More than 1,000 police officers, firefighters and paramedics in the Los Angeles region were ill or at home quarantining on Tuesday after testing positive for the coronavirus, spurring additional concerns about public safety as the omicron variant continues its rapid spread.

A spokesman for L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti called it an “unprecedented surge” in cases which the mayor is focused on and working to mitigate — including by authorizing additional overtime funds to cover the shifts of those out sick.

LAPD officers attend the funeral of LAPD Officer Valentin Martinez, the agency’s first sworn employee to die of complications from COVID-19, in August 2020.
LAPD officers attend the funeral of LAPD Officer Valentin Martinez, the agency’s first sworn employee to die of complications from COVID-19, in August 2020. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

More than 500 employees of the Los Angeles Police Department — including 416 sworn officers — were at home quarantining as of Jan. 1 after positive tests, the department said. In the last week alone, the department had seen 424 new cases, officials said.

The Los Angeles Fire Department had 201 employees out due to the coronavirus as of Tuesday, while the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had 552 employees out, including 389 sworn deputies, officials said.

L.A. County health officials have reported delays in ambulance responses to 911 calls, both because of sick emergency personnel and ambulances being forced to wait to offload patients at overburdened hospitals. Across the state, more than 1,230 state prison employees were infected, as were 712 incarcerated people, officials said.

The explosion of cases among front-line public safety workers reflected a fear come to fruition for officials who for more than a year have sought to get such employees vaccinated against COVID-19 — not only for their safety and the safety of those they come into direct contact with, but also to protect the city’s public safety agencies at an operational level.

The more than 500 LAPD employees currently out marks a substantial increase from past months, and a substantial loss of personnel for a department of about 12,000.

Asked about the impacts, LAPD Chief Michel Moore said that the numbers remained below the peak of cases within the department in January 2021 — though they came on more swiftly and continue to grow — and that the department has so far been able to meet minimum staffing requirements for patrol.

He said many of those testing positive had been vaccinated, and that fortunately most were experiencing mild or moderate symptoms.

Capt. Stacy Spell, an LAPD spokesman, said the department had not experienced any disruption to its “core services.”

“The department is prepared to make adjustments to our staffing, including the reallocation of human resources in the event it becomes needed, however we are not at that point,” Spell said. “We continue to meet the demands needed and will ensure Angelenos’ public safety needs are met.”

Cheryl Getuiza, an LAFD spokeswoman, said the Fire Department had a number of “24-hour closures to engines and trucks” in place due to the reduction in staffing.

However, the department “must maintain adequate daily staffing to ensure our ambulances and fire trucks are ready to respond at all times” and was doing so through overtime and other moves of staffing, Getuiza said.

“It’s important to note that company closures do not equate to fire station closures,” she said. “Communities have resources available and will continue to receive adequate coverage.”

Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas in a letter to LAFD personnel Tuesday noted the large number of personnel out sick and urged his workforce to get vaccinated.

“Due to this rise in numbers, I encourage all members to get vaccinated, boosted, tested and observe all Department protocols to minimize the spread,” Terrazas wrote.

Harrison Wollman, a spokesman for Garcetti, said in a statement that keeping city residents safe was Garcetti’s “top priority,” and that the mayor was “focused on making sure the Police and Fire Departments have the resources they need to do that during this unprecedented surge in cases.”

Wollman said the mayor had authorized additional overtime funds for police patrols and “is committed to taking the steps necessary to make sure we have the fire and police resources we need in place across the city.”

City and county officials first urged and then mandated that employees get vaccinated against the coronavirus as data showed the vaccines significantly reduce infection rates and the seriousness of symptoms among those who become infected.

However, a sizable portion of employees, and of police and fire personnel, have refused to be vaccinated, with thousands seeking religious or medical exemptions to the vaccination mandates and others suing the city — alleging the vaccination mandate violated their rights.

As of Dec. 23, about 21% of the LAPD and 16% of the LAFD remained unvaccinated, according to city data. Employees of the county Sheriff’s Department and of the state prison system have remained unvaccinated in even larger numbers.

Those who are unvaccinated and awaiting decisions by the city on their requests for exemptions must be tested twice a week.

The omicron variant has shown high transmission rates and an ability to cause breakthrough cases even in those who have been vaccinated, though vaccinated individuals generally have more mild symptoms than those who are unvaccinated, health officials say.

Officials still see vaccines — and booster shots — as the primary defense against the virus, and public safety leaders have continued urging their employees to listen to the science and get vaccinated.

Some department employees have taken up the same message — including some who have fallen ill themselves in recent days despite being vaccinated.

On Monday, Steve Lurie, commanding officer of the LAPD’s risk management and legal affairs group, posted on Twitter that he was “down” with COVID-19 — which had left him “wiped out” despite being vaccinated, boosted and “basically healthy and in shape.”

“I cannot imagine fighting it [without] the benefit of science, and vaccines,” Lurie wrote. “Please get vaccinated.”

L.A. County reported nearly 22,000 new cases Tuesday, and nearly 2,000 hospitalizations.

(Los Angeles Times staff writers Emily Alpert Reyes and Dakota Smith contributed to this report.)

©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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