Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Thursday, Jan. 6, he has authorized overtime dollars in order to maintain staffing levels amid a surge in Los Angeles police officers and firefighters forced to stay home after testing positive for the coronavirus.
The top city fire official also acknowledged that with nearly 300 sworn and civilian staff off-duty, some stations are now “less resourced than normal” and response times have slowed. The police department, which has more than 500 officers out, has been able to meet its patrol staffing requirements, with some delay in responding to “routine calls,” officials said.
Garcetti delivered a briefing Thursday at a downtown fire station, where he was flanked by the police and fire chiefs, seeking to assure the public that both the police and fire departments “have maintained staffing levels that are needed to keep Angelenos safe.”
“Let me repeat that — we have maintained staffing levels to make sure you, your family, our communities are safe,” he said, adding that “five out of six members” of each of the two departments are fully vaccinated.
“But in terms of our safety, I have authorized the use of additional overtime funds to cover those folks that are out sick,” he said.
As of Wednesday, 505 police officers and 299 sworn and civilian fire department employees were home quarantining after testing positive for COVID-19, he said, adding this reflects a challenge that is similar to those faced by other city departments, other public agencies, hospitals and in the private sector.
The number of LAPD employees out due to COVID had increased “five-fold,” according to Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore. Last week 424 employees, most of them sworn, “came down with the virus,” he said, compared to 89 the week before.
Moore said “we will see some delay in routine calls,” but he added that 911 calls are on the rise, and the mayor has authorized additional staffing for 911 operators.
Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas said that while stations are not closing, but some stations have “less resources than normal.”
“When you call in for help (to the Los Angeles Fire Department) we will respond,” Terrazas said. “However, our response times have been impacted by our lack of staffing due to COVID.”
He said that for “critical advanced life support response” the time has increased by 13 seconds, and for structure fires, response times went up by six seconds.
“As we’ve always done, we will continue to evaluate on a daily basis our ability to maintain operational readiness to deal with any emergency that occurs within our city,” Terrazas said.
He said the 299 fire department employees now off-duty because of the coronavirus is “the highest we’ve see at any one time.” There were 24 firefighters who tested positive a few weeks ago.
The mayor’s briefing arrived as omicron-fueled cases continue to skyrocket across the city and county, driving the daily caseloads to record levels and inspiring concern among medical leaders about a wave of infections that could overwhelm the region’s hospital staffs. Hundreds of police officers, deputies and firefighters across the region were reportedly out sick this week as public agencies have been stretched thin by the wave of new cases.
LA County public health officials modified the county’s public health order on Wednesday, requiring employers to provide upgraded masks to employees who work indoors in close contact with others.
The order, issued Wednesday, will take effect Jan. 17 and requires employers to provide affected workers with “well-fitting medical grade masks, surgical masks, or higher-level respirators, such as N95 or KN95 masks.”
The revised order also amended the definition of outdoor “mega events,” where masking is required, to 5,000 or more attendees; and the definition of indoor “mega” events to 500 or more people. The numbers align with those in the state’s health order. The county’s order also “recommends” that food and drink be consumed only in designated dining areas.
The county posted 26,754 new COVID cases, and 27 new deaths; the new totals raise the number of cases since the pandemic began to 1,806,828 and the county’s death toll to 27,698, according to health officials. Hospitalizations, meanwhile, rose to 2,461 on Wednesday, an increase of 221 from the previous day, according to the state dashboard; 330 of those patients are in intensive care.
The average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 22.4% as of Wednesday. That rate was below 1% a month ago.
Meanwhile, California officials announced that the statewide mandate requiring people to wear masks in indoor public settings will remain in place until at least Feb. 15, the state’s Health and Human Services secretary announced today, pointing to rising COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.
The state imposed the mandate on Dec. 15, and it had been scheduled to expire on Jan. 15.
The resurgent outbreak has multiplied demands for testing across the state, and the need for more testing supplies intensifies as students and teachers return to school after their winter breaks.
The winter surge has truly taken a huge toll on law enforcement — and not just in City of Los Angeles.
In the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, 573 employees were also ordered to stay home after testing positive, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said, with 399 sworn personnel sickened.
The surge in positive cases for fire and police officials comes as those agencies have continued to struggle to get all of their employees vaccinated. Recent figures showed 21% of LAPD employees and 16% of LAFD employees still have not been vaccinated.
The City of Long Beach’s employee vaccination rate has increased from 73% to 84% since the city announced in September it would move to mandate staffers get inoculated against the coronavirus — the police and fire departments’ sworn officers still lag behind at around 60% and 70%, respectively.
“Our folks, just as our partners in the Sheriff’s Department, are being stressed and are at their limit,” L.A. County Assistant Chief Brian Bennett told the Carson City Council in its regular meeting Tuesday.
The new positive cases of coronavirus are part of what was expected to be a massive winter surge of infections across the Los Angeles area. As of Wednesday, there were at least 2,461 people hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms in LA County. Among those, 330 were in intensive care.
As a result, L.A. County health officials asked residents to stay away from hospitals for “minor complaints that could be resolved through their primary care physician.”
Bennett said COVID-19-related staffing shortages at ambulance companies serving the area meant L.A. County fire officials were forced to approve a plan to transport patients in their trucks. In some cases, firefighters are telling residents who need only basic first aid to transport themselves to hospitals.
“They’re encouraging the residents to either find a private vehicle or alternative methods to get to the hospital so that we can save those ambulances for the critical patients in your communities,” Bennett said. “This is kind of unprecedented.”
Barbara Ferrer, L.A. County’s director of public health, said some of the increase in positive cases was occurring among residents who are already vaccinated. But the most severe cases have been overwhelmingly among unvaccinated patients.
“Even as transmission surges, we are seeing that vaccines are doing what they were intended to do, which is protect people from getting severely ill due to COVID,” Ferrer said in a statement.
Law enforcement agencies said they were responding to the latest surge in officer quarantines without having to cut back on patrols.
“LAPD is still meeting staffing requirements throughout the City and there is no current disruption to core services,” officials said in a statement Wednesday. LAPD has just over 12,000 total employees.
If things get worse, they said, the department was “prepared to make adjustments to our staffing, including the reallocation of resources.
“However, we are not at that point.”
Staff writers Josh Cain, Harry Saltzgaver, Kristy Hutchings and Olga Grigoryants contributed to this report, as well as City News Service.