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L.A. officials hope Omicron surge among public safety workers fades as fast as it rose

Mayor Eric Garcetti standing outside wearing a face mask.
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, pictured at Union Station last month, said he hopes the Omicron wave will past quickly.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Following a major spike in coronavirus cases among Los Angeles’ public safety workers — including a fivefold increase in the LAPD just in the last week — city officials are ramping up overtime, canceling some leave and eyeing additional contingency plans in order to maintain critical services.

They are also banking on added relief from an equally swift decline in cases in weeks to come — a hope based on early evidence elsewhere in the world that the highly contagious Omicron variant that is sweeping L.A. may subside as quickly as it surges.

“There’s no evidence that shows us, anywhere else in the world that’s gone [through an Omicron wave] earlier, that this is something that lasts for months,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said during a Thursday news conference at a downtown fire station where he was flanked by his police and fire chiefs.

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Garcetti specifically cited signs that the Omicron wave has receded quickly in South Africa, where the variant was first identified, and said if that trend holds true in L.A., “we will see this surge peak maybe as early as the end of this week or next week, and it should come down pretty rapidly as well.”

Garcetti said that the recent rate of new cases in the Los Angeles Police Department — which saw 424 new cases just in the last week and had more than 500 personnel home sick or quarantining as of Thursday — would be a problem if it persisted for six or seven weeks, but that he and other city officials were confident that would not be the case.

LAPD Chief Michel Moore agreed.

“I will not suggest to you that we would want to endure the current shortages of personnel for months on end,” Moore said. “But as the mayor indicated, the behavior of this pandemic, of this particular variant, is that we do see this as a surge that will be — it is our hope and belief — short-lived.”

More than 1,000 police officers, firefighters and paramedics in the Los Angeles region were ill or at home quarantining on Tuesday after testing positive for COVID-19.

Garcetti’s news conference at Fire Station 4 followed reporting in The Times on Wednesday that more than 1,000 L.A.-area police officers, firefighters and paramedics were sidelined by the coronavirus, raising concerns about public safety more broadly in a city of millions.

Garcetti said that while “the Omicron variant has taken off like wildfire,” he wanted to “set Angelenos’ minds at ease” that public safety agencies were meeting the moment and maintaining critical services.

Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas, who had nearly 300 personnel out Thursday — “the highest we’ve seen at any one time” — said he had taken various steps to ensure continued service, including canceling leave for remaining personnel, offering optional overtime and at times even ordering personnel to work longer shifts.

Terrazas said no fire stations had closed, though some were operating with fewer people.

“We will respond. However, our response times have been impacted by our lack of staffing due to COVID,” he said.

Moore said that residents could also see some delay in police responses to routine calls as the department works to fill shifts, but that officers are still patrolling and investigating violent crime.

Moore said the department is taking steps to isolate outbreaks — which have been seen at the police academy and in three jails run by the LAPD — and to avoid broader spread of the virus among personnel and prisoners. Moore did not have specific figures for the number of cases among jail staff or detainees.

Moore said the LAPD has yet to cancel leave or days off for officers or to fully mobilize its force — which it could do if things got worse and which would essentially double the department’s available resources.

“That lever is still before us,” Moore said.

In coming days, he said, he would use contingency plans developed in the early days of the pandemic to mitigate the effects on core services such as patrol if needed.

“We still have resources that we have not flexed,” he said.

Moore said that if cases continued to surge to a point at which the LAPD might not be able to meet its mission, he would share that with the public.

“We will be transparent about that,” he said. “We’re not going to ignore the real consequences that we see of this public health emergency.”

Moore said he didn’t believe the failure among some officers to wear masks, despite a department requirement to do so, had contributed to Omicron’s spread in the ranks. However, he did say that the department is moving toward requiring better-quality medical-grade masks for officers, rather than the cloth masks many now wear.


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