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L.A. police, fire agencies hotbeds of vaccine opposition — and coronavirus outbreaks

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and LAPD Chief Michel Moore in masks
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, center, and LAPD Chief Michel Moore wear masks at a news conference last year.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County health officials have identified hundreds of coronavirus outbreaks at police and fire agencies since the start of the pandemic, according to data obtained by The Times through a public records request.

The outbreaks, accounting for more than 2,500 coronavirus cases, have occurred in public safety agencies large and small across the county. More than half, however, were in just two agencies: the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Fire Department — where members are actively fighting public health measures to control such spread.

Of 211 identified outbreaks of three or more coronavirus cases at police or fire agencies in L.A. County between March 2020 and last month, 112 were linked to the LAPD and LAFD, according to the data.

The LAPD had 37 identified outbreaks, accounting for 1,061 cases, while the LAFD had 75 identified outbreaks, accounting for 553 cases, the data show.

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Another 18 outbreaks were identified at the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, accounting for 334 cases, and 44 at the L.A. County Fire Department, accounting for 211 cases, the data show.

The figures reflect a consistent and ongoing spread of infection within police and fire stations from the start of the pandemic through the present, and offer an important backdrop to the growing effort by police officers and firefighters to push back on measures such as vaccine mandates.

In response to a new L.A. ordinance mandating that all employees be vaccinated by next month unless they are granted a medical or religious exemption, both LAPD and LAFD employees filed lawsuits challenging the requirement. Thousands more have filed notice that they intend to claim an exemption.

City officials have said that 56% of LAPD employees and 58.5% of sworn LAFD employees have been fully vaccinated, according to recent data. Those rates lag behind the 68% of L.A. County residents 12 and older who are fully vaccinated, according to county data.

Most LAPD officers who have tested positive since June were unvaccinated. Ten LAPD employees have died from the virus.

Critics have accused LAPD officers and LAFD firefighters of ignoring public safety — and their sworn duties to uphold it — by refusing to get vaccinated or wear masks in public settings. Similar accusations have been directed at public safety employees elsewhere in the county and across the country.

In response to questions about the outbreaks, both the LAPD and the LAFD said they care about the safety of their employees, their family members and the public, and have taken precautions to safeguard against outbreaks in their workplaces — including by encouraging their employees to get vaccinated.

Capt. Stacy Spell, an LAPD spokesman, said that whenever outbreaks have occurred at LAPD facilities, the department has “ensured clean ups or decontamination efforts were made” and that exposed employees completed reports documenting that exposure.

More than 2,600 LAPD employees have indicated that they plan to pursue religious exemptions, while more than 350 plan to seek medical ones, according to a source in city government.

Cheryl Getuiza, an LAFD spokeswoman, said the fire department has “taken proactive measures to minimize the likelihood of an outbreak” at its stations, including by issuing reminders about hygiene and instituting new rules around masking and social distancing.

When outbreaks occur, the involved fire company is taken out of service and its members “isolate and are treated” while the department “decontaminates equipment and the work location,” she said.

In its own statement, the county health department said worksites are “not immune” to the high rates of coronavirus transmission in L.A. County, particularly those with unvaccinated employees.

It said outbreaks are particularly concerning “when there is regular close contact among co-workers and regular and close interaction with the public,” so it works closely with fire and police departments and other employers to “ensure they understand how to implement COVID-19 infection control requirements and recommendations.”

The health department has been less than forthcoming about its efforts to confront outbreaks once they occur in law enforcement settings, however — withholding COVID-19 inspection reports on LAPD facilities that were requested by The Times.

The county data do not paint a complete picture of the spread of the coronavirus through police and fire agencies or their workforces, as cases identified as being part of workplace outbreaks represent a fraction of the total cases in the county and in those agencies.

For example, the 1,061 coronavirus cases linked to workplace outbreaks within the LAPD represent about a third of the 3,126 total cases identified among LAPD personnel as of this week, according to the department’s internal data.

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The numbers do, however, show a persistence of outbreaks and provide insight into how clusters have broken out in public safety settings across the region.

Out of nearly 2,300 total workplace outbreaks identified by the county between March 2020 and last month, 211 — or about 9% — were within public safety agencies, according to a Times review. Other service sector workplaces that never fully closed during the pandemic, such as grocery stores, were also heavily represented.

The first workplace outbreak at a public safety agency was logged by the county on March 19, 2020, in relation to three coronavirus cases identified at the Los Angeles World Airports police station at Los Angeles International Airport, the data show.

Outbreaks continued to be logged through to the last day the data were captured, on Aug. 31, when LAPD officials reported an outbreak of six cases at the Topanga station, and another three cases at the North Hollywood station.

Dates associated with individual outbreaks in the data are based on when the outbreaks were documented by the county, not necessarily when they occurred, the county said.

Many of the largest outbreaks were logged between November and January, corresponding with a national surge in cases during that time.

Over the course of just two days in mid-November, officials logged four clusters within the LAPD accounting for 170 coronavirus cases — including 63 cases at its Central Station and 68 at its Southwest Station. The largest outbreak identified among police or fire agencies was logged about a week later, when 92 cases were identified at the LAPD Newton Station.

The rise in cases comes amid a growing debate around the looming mandate, which some officers are already trying to find a way around.

On Dec. 21, L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer emailed LAPD Chief Michel Moore to share her concerns about outbreaks in the agency.

“I wanted to let you know that our outbreak management team is concerned with the recent increases (since the end of November) in outbreaks at different LAPD stations,” Ferrer wrote, before listing five recent outbreaks in LAPD stations accounting for 107 coronavirus cases.

“Would it be helpful if our team met with folks at LAPD to review the guidance?” she asked.

Moore responded five minutes later.

“We’ve been doing site inspections with our City medical services team and the reports I’ve received from them and your inspections have been a marked improvement. Always welcome input and recommendations,” he wrote.

City officials would not produce documentation of such medical services inspections.

The next day, on Dec. 22, outbreaks were logged at six LAFD fire stations, accounting for 42 cases stretching from Venice to Pacoima to Hollywood. From Dec. 28 to Jan. 22, officials logged another 350 cases linked to seven different clusters within the LAPD.

Outbreaks logged in county data since that time — as vaccination rates have increased among police and fire personnel — have generally been smaller in size, with case numbers mostly remaining in the single digits.

Aside from L.A. and L.A. County’s larger agencies, smaller cities in the L.A. region have also seen outbreaks within their police and fire forces.

Firefighters sued L.A. over vaccine mandate for city employees. A group of LAPD officers earlier filed a similar lawsuit.

On Nov. 24, health officials logged an outbreak of 27 cases at the Pomona Police Department. Days later, they logged 21 cases at the Gardena Police Department. A week later, they logged another 21 cases in the Santa Fe Springs division of the California Highway Patrol. Two days later, on Dec. 10, 29 cases were logged in the El Monte Police Department.

While the number of individual coronavirus cases per outbreak has fallen since last winter, outbreaks have continued to regularly occur.

The most individual outbreaks logged in any month since the start of the pandemic was in April of this year, with 38. The second most was in May of this year, with 35. Last month, there were 22 outbreaks logged — accounting for 122 new cases of coronavirus.

Dr. Timothy Brewer, an infectious disease expert, physician and epidemiology professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said confronting such data in public safety agencies is important, particularly amid battles over vaccination.

Police and firefighters who interact with the public have personal rights, Brewer said, but also added responsibilities to public health.

“Remember, with rights come responsibilities, and as public safety officers, they have a responsibility to take any reasonable steps to avoid endangering the public,” and getting vaccinated is such a step, Brewer said.

Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland and an expert in the emergency powers of government, said there is strong legal precedent supporting the city’s vaccination requirement — which, because of that, could become the most effective tool against outbreaks moving forward.

A 1905 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court upholding a smallpox vaccination requirement in Cambridge, Mass., essentially on the grounds that the community at large has rights to public health that can outweigh an individual’s rights to personal liberty, has stood as precedent in such cases for more than 100 years and would likely be followed by courts in California and even today’s conservative Supreme Court, Greenberger said.

The fact that L.A.’s firefighters and police routinely interact with the broader public, he said, would only bolster the city’s claims that the precedent should hold and the lawsuits be rejected, he said.

“That,” Greenberger said, “will be a very important factor.”

Dustin DeRollo, a spokesman for the union that represents LAPD officers, said the union has worked with the department since the pandemic began to ensure physical workspaces are kept clean and safe, and continues to negotiate with the city on the vaccination requirement — which the union feels should be augmented with an option for officers to undergo regular testing instead.

LAPD officers are already required, as a condition of employment, to be vaccinated against nine other pathogens.


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