The number of Minneapolis police officers who have tested positive for COVID-19 remained at just one as of Friday, but there is growing concern that confirmed cases could jump as screening for the disease increases in the department.
Those worries grew this week when officials say that several officers were possibly exposed to the virus that causes the disease while booking someone with symptoms into the Hennepin County jail.
A department spokesman said the number of infected officers hasn’t increased since the first case more than two weeks ago but acknowledged that “we are unsure what additional testing will reveal.“
“We have been proactive in providing PPE [personal protective equipment] to our officers,” said the spokesman, John Elder. “We have been proactive in having them report symptoms and making sure they remain away from work while they are diagnosed or their illness abates.”
But to Lisa Clemons, the official tally of infected officers seems improbably low.
“What they’re not saying is how many cops have been tested from coming in contact with possible COVID-19,” said Clemons, a retired city cop who serves on the department’s crisis response team. “If they think somebody has it, then you have to go back and look on video footage to see how many other officers they came into contact with and how many community members they came into contact with.”
So far, Minneapolis hasn’t seen the kind of outbreaks that have overwhelmed other big-city departments, like those in New York City and Detroit, where the virus reportedly has sent more than 1,000 department employees into quarantine and infected at least another 180, several of whom have died.
But observers say it’s only a matter of time before more cases surface, particularly now that testing capacity is ramping up.
Minneapolis police recorded their first COVID-19 case last month, when an unnamed officer in the 5th Precinct tested positive.
After the diagnosis, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo issued a new policy requiring all of nearly 900 officers to wear face masks and other protective equipment when responding to 911 calls. The department later announced it would start screening officers and some visitors to its police stations by taking their temperatures and asking about possible symptoms.
Officers jailing a man wanted for a probation violation this week later found out he was infected, prompting their quarantine, according to two sources familiar with the incident.
Still, officials haven’t revealed any departmentwide strategy for testing for the virus.
That worries Fifth Ward Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who said he hopes the increased testing will give authorities a better handle on the scope of the pandemic.
“I think a lot of strategy has really been born out of a lack of access,” Ellison said. “And not just for police officers, but even for north Minneapolis, because when you think about other places where things like diabetes, asthma and hypertension are really happening at elevated rates, that’s where people are dying.”
At least two Minneapolis officers had previously tested negative for the coronavirus, and Arradondo has said that “some of our staff have gone through a period of quarantine,” including the infected officer. It’s unclear how the officer, who hasn’t been identified, contracted the virus.
Officers were previously issued face masks, hand sanitizer, gloves and other protective equipment. Like the general public, some officers may be asymptomatic and moving through their lives while unknowingly spreading the virus to others, according to health experts. And even with more testing, some cases may still go undetected, officials say.
The department says it will backfill officers who fall ill with detectives and members of specialized units like the Community Engagement Team, while relying on mutual aid agreements with neighboring law enforcement agencies to help fill other service gaps.
Public health experts have said the undercounting of coronavirus deaths contributed to an incomplete picture of the pandemic in the critical early weeks of the outbreak.
“So I don’t see it as particularly shocking that they should have a low case count, though there certainly could be cases that are missing,” said Ryan Demmer, an associate professor in the epidemiology and community health division of the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. “We can’t go in and test asymptomatic police officers every day as they’re coming to work — we just don’t have the capacity to do that.”
In his State of the City address Wednesday, Mayor Jacob Frey said officers simply don’t have the option to socially distance while responding to 911 calls. “The concept of working from home is a privilege unavailable to our first responders, our 911 dispatchers, our inspectors, all front-line staff — people delivering food, service, and support,” he said.
Greg Hestness, a former deputy police chief in Minneapolis, said officers are at risk of infection not only by the nature of their jobs but by shortages of protective equipment and delays in rolling out diagnostic testing while the virus spread in the early days of the pandemic.
‘When cops are driving down the street and somebody’s assaulting their wife or girlfriend, you can’t wait to assemble a bunch of people to deal with it,” he said. “There’s no time to take precautions.”
Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order last month allowing for more sharing of COVID-19 infection data with first responders that proponents said would allow police, firefighters and paramedics to take precautions at locations with infections. But law enforcement leaders have asked the governor to re-examine the system, saying it has created an overcomplicated process.
Brian Peters, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said a lack of testing of law enforcement officers has been a problem statewide. He expects that to change under a new bill that makes it easier for officers, firefighters and other paramedics to collect workers’ compensation for coronavirus-related illness by shifting the burden of proof to their employer.