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COVID-19 surge left more than 500 Philly cops unable to work last week, department data shows

November saw the Philadelphia Police Department slammed by the coronavirus.

Masked Philadelphia Police investigate Edmund St. between Longshore and Disston St. on Friday, morning November 13, 2020.
Masked Philadelphia Police investigate Edmund St. between Longshore and Disston St. on Friday, morning November 13, 2020.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

More than half the Philadelphia Police Department has either had COVID-19 or been exposed to it over the course of the pandemic, according to internal data, and last week alone about 500 staffers, almost 8% of the department’s personnel, were unable to work.

“It’s less police on the street, and it’s less service to the community,” said John McNesby, president of Philadelphia’s Fraternal Order of Police. “And that’s nothing that we need right now.”

One unit hit particularly hard is police dispatch. The radio room has more than 20 workers quarantining this week, a union representative said, a new surge in a unit consistently plagued by the virus and where shifts of 40 or more work in close quarters. Darnell Davis, business agent for AFSCME Local 1637, which represents 220 police radio dispatchers, said more than 30 have contracted COVID-19 since the pandemic began, including as many as eight in the last two weeks.

One dispatcher said the situation is dire.

“We’re severely understaffed and overworked and it’s not healthy,” said the worker, who asked not to be named to protect their job. “There is too much going on in this city right now for us to be understaffed.”

Through a spokesperson, the department said it has been able to “reach our minimum staffing levels,” but declined to detail how quarantines are affecting operations and service. Nor would it confirm or deny the internal data, provided by a source with knowledge of police operations who was not authorized to share the data.

Throughout the year, the peaks and valleys of COVID-19-related quarantines in the Police Department have mirrored the city’s, with November the most devastating month, according to the source’s data. The department reported 465 positive COVID-19 test results last month, more than four times as many as the 112 reported in April, its second-worst month. McNesby said the absences affect service and morale.

“They’re p—ed off,” he said of officers. “They’re not happy. Morale is low, and rightfully so.”

Four officers have died this year of COVID-19, according to the department.

The number of cases did drop, though, starting in late November.

From the beginning of the pandemic to Dec. 4, 880 police staff have been diagnosed with COVID-19. A total of 3,435 staffers have had to quarantine this year, which includes people exposed to the coronavirus, suspected of having it, or who traveled to a COVID-19 hot spot. Among them are the department’s commissioner, Danielle Outlaw, who quarantined after being exposed to the virus last month.

The department has about 6,500 employees.

» READ MORE: At least 800 Philadelphia police officers may have been exposed to coronavirus, sparking fear and uncertainty

The department does not offer routine testing, McNesby said. The city health department does not recommend preemptive testing, said spokesperson James Garrow, because regular testing of thousands of officers would further strain an already burdened system, and because testing is not perfectly accurate.

Along with dispatchers, the workers hardest hit are those in criminal intelligence, with 21 people quarantining as of Dec. 4, and the 12th District, in Southwest Philly. Its 18 quarantine cases were the most of any of the department’s 21 districts. The department declined to provide any insight into the case numbers, other than to note that more staff will test positive as coronavirus rates climb in the community.

In April, the police dispatch unit was the focus of a Billy Penn story that shared workers’ concerns about viral spread. More than half a year later, the unit has reported at least one case a week from Nov. 6 to 25. More positive cases were reported on Dec. 7, 8, and 9, according to memos obtained by The Inquirer.

Time and again, each case prompted a deep cleaning of work stations and another reminder of the department’s COVID-19 safety protocols, the memos reported. At one point the commander overseeing police radio, Capt. Edward Appleton, barred anyone not assigned to the unit from entering the radio room. None of it seemed effective in stanching the spread of the virus among dispatchers.

The slew of positive cases were not always announced to every member of the unit, creating uncertainty and anxiety among staff, according to interviews. Meanwhile, police dispatchers, who earn between $39,000 and $44,000 annually, face, Davis said, frequent pressure to work hours of overtime. Workers are disciplined when they refuse extra hours, he said.

» READ MORE: Can Philadelphia transform its police force from ‘warriors’ to ‘guardians’? This de-escalation training could help.

Dispatchers have additional duties since October after the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr., who was holding a knife and had a history of mental illness. Dispatchers have had to ask callers, during what are often frantic conversations, if they have any coronavirus symptoms or have been in contact with anyone who has. In addition, dispatchers must also try to determine whether the situation involves someone in a mental health crisis.

“You have no one wanting to come to work,” according to a dispatcher, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. “People are burned out.”

The union has been asking since March for the Police Department to erect plastic-glass dividers between the side-by-side worker consoles, according to Davis, the union official. But, he said, only cardboard dividers are in use now. It also requested air purifiers.

“I haven’t gotten any answers,” Davis said. “Not a ‘no’ or anything.”

Working in the radio room, on the second floor of the Roundhouse at Eighth and Race Streets, is similar to flying in an airplane, Davis said, but with no fresh air coming in. Social distancing is difficult, if not impossible at times. There are two windows that are typically not open. The union wants the city to spread out police radio dispatchers by sending some to the 311 call center at City Hall, Davis said, but police brass wanted the City Hall location kept solely as an emergency location for the dispatchers.

“They said in case it gets bad [at the Roundhouse radio room] they need somewhere to send people,” Davis said. “But when is bad? It’s already bad.”

A handful of dispatchers are answering calls from a training center on Rising Sun Avenue, but Davis said there was also an infection there last week.

The department’s quarantine policy requires workers who self-report COVID-19 symptoms or a fever to leave work and not return until seven days have passed after symptoms started or once they’ve had a normal temperature for three days. This policy aligns with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. Police staff who have someone in their household diagnosed with COVID-19 cannot return to work until seven days after that person’s quarantine ends. Staff who have close contact with a COVID-19 positive person outside their household have to stay home for 14 days after their last contact with that person.

Along with the nature of a frontline job that requires police to share cars with partners, work out of cramped district offices, and to interact with the public, McNesby attributed some of the recent spike to election-related demonstrations. Officers, particularly bike units, were deployed in large numbers on buses, he said, forcing them into confined spaces that may have contributed to the spike, he said. The department did not comment on whether its transportation policies could have led to infections and exposure.

“Unfortunately, not every situation police officers find themselves in is conducive to maintaining safe social distance from other people — particularly when responding to mass gatherings,” a spokesperson, Sgt. Eric Gripp, said.

Throughout this year, officers have been criticized for not wearing masks. McNesby declined to comment on whether officers’ mask habits, which the department has attempted to address through training and discipline, was tied to the climbing case numbers.

» READ MORE: This Philly cop had the coronavirus and was on a ventilator for 20 days. Now, he’s sharing his story of hope.

Officers are counting on access to a vaccine to relieve the threat of COVID-19 infection. Some police could be vaccinated before the end of the year, city officials said, depending on vaccine supplies.

Staff writer Dylan Purcell contributed to this article.