Detroit police, firefighters see COVID spike but no 'crisis situation'

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city's police and fire departments, which were ravaged by the coronavirus at the outset of the pandemic, are dealing with a recent spike in positive cases, prompting the temporary shutdown of a Detroit Police unit.

The good news: No Detroit police officers or firefighters were hospitalized from the virus Thursday, officials said.

The police department Thursday had 82 employees quarantined — 61 of whom tested positive for the virus, and the rest who had symptoms and were sidelined as precautionary measures, police chief James Craig said.

Of the employees with positive cases, 51 are sworn officers, the chief said.

Craig said a "small specialized unit" was shut down and its members quarantined Monday after two officers assigned to the crew tested positive for the virus. He said for strategic reasons he didn't want to publicly reveal which unit was out of operation.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig

"We had been running about 20 positive cases for several weeks until this recent spike, which started about two weeks ago," said Craig, who said he gets daily COVID updates and meets with staff at least twice a week to discuss the virus.

"But even though the number of cases is trending higher, we're not seeing as many hospitalizations or people getting really sick, so that's good," Craig said.

Detroit fire chief Robert Distelrath said as of Thursday, 34 firefighters were COVID-positive and quarantined, with no hospitalizations.

"In the past few weeks, we've seen an uptick," he said. "We had been running about 20 or so during the summer, so it's up a little. But we're getting an equal number of people coming off quarantine as those going on, so it's not a crisis situation or anything."

Robert Distelrath, Chief of Fire Operations

Craig, who contracted the virus in March, said two employees had been hospitalized from COVID earlier this week but were released.

The uptick in cases among Detroit's safety forces comes as infection is spreading in the city and state.

On Oct. 21, the seven-day positive infection rate was 2.5% in Detroit; it since has risen to 6.8%. Mayor Mike Duggan announced Monday the city would reinstitute testing sites, inspections and enforcement to slow the spread of COVID-19.

In March, the virus hit the police department hard; at its peak, more than 650 DPD employees were quarantined. A police captain and civilian dispatcher died in March after contracting the virus, and for weeks, the department absorbed double-digit hospitalizations.

The fire department, which also suffered the death of a captain who contracted the virus, had more than 100 employees quarantined in early April.

The number of cases fell steadily after that until the recent spike, which Craig and Distelrath insist is not having the same impact on their respective departments as the outbreaks in March and April.

"We're not really worried about it right now," Distelrath said. "Right from the start, our members have taken this very seriously. We're pleased with the protocols we've put in place, and the numbers show that they're working."

Craig added: "This isn't affecting us anywhere nearly as badly as it did early on, and I think that's because we've learned so much about how to manage the virus. Now, we do tracing more effectively, and we have the rapid testing the mayor was able to facilitate. We're able to get more officers tested — and if they test positive, or even if they show symptoms, we quarantine them."

Through contact tracing, police officials determined many officers were getting the virus from friends and family and bringing it to work, Craig said.

"Many of them were asymptomatic and don’t know a family member or friend has it, and then they come into the workplace and there’s an infection," the police chief said.

The 12th Precinct recently suffered a small COVID outbreak, Craig said.

"It wasn't so horrific we had to shut down the precinct, but we had a few positive cases, and needed to bring in support from other units," he said. "We found that one individual contacted it off-duty, gave it to another officer, and then we found a few other officers on that shift had contacted it. But because the station acted quickly to stop the spread, it wasn't too bad.

"There was another case recently when our officers went to a call for service on a death investigation," Craig said. "They get there, they've got their proper PPE and equipment on, and they're met by the spouse of someone who had just died, and that person died from COVID.

"The wife was also positive (with COVID), so once we learned of the officers' interaction during that exchange, we rushed to get them tested," Craig said. "They came back negative."

Distelrath said the pandemic hasn't recently presented any particularly difficult situations for firefighters and emergency medical technicians.

"It's been very quiet compared to what it was like in the spring," he said.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN