Pandemic Sidelines Police, Fire and Teachers in California

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A dramatic surge in coronavirus cases has sidelined more than 800 Los Angeles city police and fire personnel and led to slightly longer ambulance and fire response times, adding to concerning absences statewide of public safety officers, health care workers and teachers.

Mayor Eric Garcetti said Thursday that more than 500 LAPD officers and other police employees and nearly 300 firefighters were off-duty after testing positive for COVID-19, though he said measures were being taken to ensure the safety of the public.

“This is an incredibly tough moment,” Garcetti said. “The omicron variant has taken off like wildfire.”

The rapid rise in infections of public employees and frontline workers is mirroring the trend in the general public driven by the fast-spreading omicron variant first detected in late November.

The nation's largest state extended an indoor mask mandate until Feb. 15 to prevent overwhelming hospitals as cases climbed nearly five-fold in the last two weeks. Two-in-five hospitals expect critical staff shortages and some have a quarter of staff out because of the virus, said Kiyomi Burchill of the California Hospital Association.

California had the lowest case rate in the U.S. in September, but now ranks 31st in new cases per capita over the past two weeks.

Despite the rapid spread of the virus, vaccinations are preventing serious illnesses, said Los Angeles Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, who indicated that the explosive spread could wane by next month.

“My hope is that, you know, by the time we get to February, we’re on the downside of seeing that massive amount of community transmission,” she said.

People concerned about exposure to the virus have jammed test sites and searched in vain for at-home rapid tests that are largely absent from store shelves.

Christina Wilkens, who was exposed to someone with the virus and needed a negative test to return to work, was among hundreds — some sneezing and coughing — waiting in line at a Long Beach test site.

“I’ve been standing up here for three hours now,” a frustrated Wilkens said. "I was shocked because my daughter — she came yesterday — and she told me she walked right in and walked out.”

Christina Haidet of the Long Beach Health Department said they were administering a record number of tests.

“The surge is incredible," she said. "I don’t think anyone was prepared for the amount of people that we’ve seen.”

Schools have also been hard-hit with absences.

One in six of San Francisco's 3,600 teachers were out Thursday. Even with administrators, substitutes and others stepping in there weren't enough teachers for every classroom, Superintendent Vince Matthews.

“This is the most challenging time in my 36 years as an educator,” Matthews said during a break from filling in as a sixth grade science teacher. “We’re trying to educate students in the middle of a pandemic while the sands around us are consistently shifting.”

With large absences of students and teachers, all 54 schools in West Contra Costa County, east of San Francisco, will be closed Friday and Monday.

“The virus and large number of absences is putting an immense strain on our system,” Kenneth Chris Hurst, superintendent of West Contra Costa Unified School District, wrote in a memo Thursday to staff and families.

More than 5,000 students have been absent each day this week, or almost a quarter of the 28,000 students enrolled, said district spokesman Ryan Phillips.

To cover the closures, the district is using “smoke days,” the equivalent of snow days, that were unused during fall wildfire season and are built into the calendar, Phillips said.

Public safety absences were not unique to Los Angeles.

San Francisco reported on Tuesday that 167 officers were quarantined and 135 firefighters — both representing about 8% of their forces — were absent due to COVID-19. San Diego had nearly 200 officers and other personnel out Tuesday, reflecting a similar percentage of the department.

In Los Angeles, city firefighters were working voluntary overtime shifts and others were being forced to stay on duty after their 24-hour shifts ended to maintain staffing, Chief Ralph Terrazas said. He said he planned to cancel vacations and other time off.

The absences of more than 8% of the uniformed staff was forcing some fire engines and ambulances to be out of service for 24 hours but all firehouses remained open, Terrazas said. Ambulance response times have slowed 13 seconds from a year ago and fire calls are six seconds slower.

Infections at the Los Angeles Police Department, which employs about 10,000 officers and 3,500 civilians, rose more than 500% in the past week, mostly among officers, Chief Michel Moore said.

Moore said it was taking an average of three weeks for officers struck with COVID-19 to return to work, but they have not yet forced others to stay on the job to meet the demand.

“That lever is still before us,” he said. “I will not suggest to you that we would want to endure the current shortages of personnel for months on end. ... We do see this as a surge that will be, it is our hope and belief, short lived."


Associated Press journalists Eugene Garcia in Long Beach, Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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