January 24, 2022
COVID-19 surge thinning police ranks on South Florida streets
By Charles Rabin

As South Florida police officers once again begin falling ill to COVID-19 — almost certainly with the fast-spreading omicron variant — law enforcement agencies are taking it more in stride than in past waves.

As of Wednesday, three percent, or 135 sworn personnel in the two biggest departments in the county, Miami and Miami-Dade police, are out due to COVID-19. The overall numbers, provided to the Miami Herald by various South Florida police departments, haven’t yet reached past pandemic peak but they are rising rapidly. 

COVID-19 was the No. 1 killer of police officers over the last two years, claiming a far higher toll than gunfire and accidents — with Florida ranking high for losses. But with vaccines, boosters, other treatments and better protection measures and the latest version of the virus initially appearing more contagious but seemingly less severe, law enforcement agencies are preparing for staff shortages but not pushing the panic button. 

“Something is happening,” said Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association President Steadman Stahl. “But as it’s been explained to me, this time it’s going to be more like the flu season.”

Still, it could mean another wave that takes officers off the street in large numbers. The omicron variant, though detected in the U.S. only over the past few weeks is already responsible for more than 70 percent of infections nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As of Wednesday, Miami-Dade Police, the county’s largest agency with 3,000 sworn personnel, had 92 officers out either with the virus or because they’d been exposed. Though the number of infections was rising fairly quickly, it was still well below the 178 cops who were out during last summer’s surge. 

The City of Miami with its 1,300 sworn personnel, were down 43 because of the virus. And in Miami Beach with its 300 sworn police officers, 17 are out because they either have the virus or were exposed to it. 

The virus is also affecting the Broward Sheriff’s Office. As of Wednesday, 109 BSO employees were out with, or because of, COVID-19. The agency, which also includes Broward County Jails, has 6,000 sworn and civilian employees. 

With the number of infections expected to grow, some police departments are beginning to adjust and implement new or past proven measures to fight the new variant of a virus. 

Interim Miami Police Chief Manny Morales said city leaders are now discussing reimplementing preventive measures like having roll call outside. The department is also shifting from permitting cloth face masks to the more protective N95s. And if an officer isn’t vaccinated, he or she has to wear a mask at all times while on duty.

“We’re seeing the numbers come up. We’re just a cross-section of the community,” said Morales. “But if you come back positive, you’ve got to quarantine whether you have symptoms or not. So it affects the bodies on the street.” 

The spread of omicron has been particularly troublesome because of its timing. It’s come barreling through during the holiday season, with record numbers of people hitting the roads or flying to visit family for the first time in years. Testing sites throughout Miami-Dade and Broward have been packed, with some sites running out of monoclonal treatments.

Recently retired El Portal Police Chief Dave Magnusson, who still chairs Miami-Dade’s Chief of Police COVID-19 committee, said though the infection numbers will likely rocket past last summer’s highs, the “dread factor” doesn’t seem to be there. 

“People aren’t going to cancel planned trips. They already have tickets. It’s also a matter of people being fed up. And from the get-go, they’ve been saying it’s not as bad as delta,” Magnusson said. “But there’s still a logistics thing to this. It’s going to shut down businesses and people are going to be affected. And it’s still going to lead to quarantines.” 

There’s also this: For whatever reason, police and other first responders have been hesitant about getting vaccinated. Though exact numbers aren’t available, their vaccination rates, at least anecdotally, are significantly lower than the general public. 

Both Stahl and Miami police union President Tommy Reyes believe just a little more than half of their officers have been vaccinated. This, despite the high toll COVID-19 took on law enforcement agencies. Of the 33 law enforcement officers in South Florida who lost their lives in the line of duty over the past two years, three were killed by gunfire, one died in a car crash and another lost his life to a work-related injury. The other 28 were felled by COVID-19.

Former Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa said there is less fear because medical experts and agencies understand the virus better. He noted that local hospitals have full emergency rooms, but still plenty of beds because patients are being sent home. Still, Orosa said, if cops catch the virus it could hurt enforcement.

“If it were me, I’d get the needle. I’m completely vaccinated and nothing has happened to me,” Orosa said. Speaking to cops, Orosa said, “It’s up to you and your doctor. But if you don’t have vaccination issues, you should get the shot. Even police catch the virus, it’s still a numbers problem.”