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How St. Louis area police are protecting themselves from COVID-19

Six city officers and about two dozen county officers are quarantined
Credit: ksdk

ST. LOUIS — Police departments across the St. Louis area are bracing for COVID-19 by arming officers with masks and gloves while allowing — and in some cases requiring — officers to quarantine.

Departments in other parts of the country report growing numbers of police officers testing positive for the virus and shortages of personal protective equipment.

But locally, police leaders said they have a sufficient amount of protective equipment to keep officers safe from COVID-19.

Spokespersons for both St. Louis city and county and other officials would not give information about the number of officers who have been quarantined.

But sources tell 5 On Your Side that six officers have asked to be quarantined in the city. None have been tested for the virus because they do not meet the CDC guidelines to be tested.

In St. Louis County, about a dozen officers have reported experiencing symptoms and are now off-duty until they subside. None have been tested and will have to wear masks when they return to work.

An additional dozen officers, who have recently returned from high-risk states, have been put on quarantine orders for 14 days, according to a source.

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Both departments are working with hotels to house officers who are under quarantine, 5 On Your Side has learned.

So far, only a few officers from municipal police departments have used the hotel in the county, and the plan is for their respective cities to reimburse the county, according to police union leaders.

In the city, Bob and Steve O'Loughlin have offered their properties, including Ballpark Village and Union Station, to house officers who want or need to be quarantined, said Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards.

So far, no officers have taken advantage of the option, he said.

Edwards would not comment on the number of officers who are quarantined but confirmed no officers have tested positive.

Other departments haven’t been so lucky.

In New York, the department has reported that 211 of its officers have tested positive for the virus along with 46 firefighters, according to NBC News.

But union leaders there have said the department doesn’t have enough masks and gloves to go around.

RELATED: St. Louis-area police making changes due to coronavirus concerns

In St. Louis, Edwards said he’s “pretty comfortable,” with the amount of masks, gloves and goggles the department has for officers and believes it will last for at least two to three weeks. He said the city is expecting a delivery of additional supplies from the state.

But officers are not wearing the gear at all times. Dispatchers are now asking 911 callers a series of questions to gauge if there could be any risk of exposure to responding officers, and officers can then determine how much protection they want to wear, Edwards said.

“We are very empathetic and grateful to them for the job they are doing,” he said. “They are our first responders, and their jobs are just as important as health care workers under these circumstances.”

Edwards said the city is “helping” the county police department with masks, and said he was pleased to learn the county is using a hotel to house at-risk officers as well.

“We have always stored equipment like this and tried to prepare for these types of situations,” he said. “I believe our stock was built up during the (2014) civil unrest.”

But the St. Louis Police Officers Association said the department just became adequately supplied with protective gear within the past few days. The union bought gloves, masks and sanitizer for officers, said Jeff Roorda, business manager for the union.

"The supplies were nonexistent when this crisis first became evident," Roorda said. "And the fact that some officers have masks doesn't mean everybody has masks. 

"There are more supplies now and we're more interested in taking care of the here and now and we'll deal with the failures that led up to this crisis later."

Roorda would not comment on how many officers have been quarantined, but said officers have been quarantined because of feared exposures while on duty. He said he and the rest of the union's 1,200 or so members learned of the offer to stay at the O'Loughlin properties from 5 On Your Side's report.

"We're very afraid that this is a temporary surge in supplies and if attention is not paid to this issue, we'll be back in a situation where we're low on life-saving protective equipment."

In St. Louis County, Officer Tracy Panus said the department has N95 masks available to all patrol officers along with sanitizer and gloves. All patrol cars are being wiped down between shifts and officers have been given instructions on how to sanitize equipment, she wrote.

“On most calls, officers will not be wearing masks,” she wrote. “They will be worn if there is a risk.”

Panus has not yet responded to questions regarding the number of county officers who are quarantined.

During Tuesday’s County Council meeting, council members approved an additional $500,000 to buy more personal protective equipment. St. Louis County Police Association President Matt Crecelius didn’t like the tone.

“They think we should be thankful,” Crecelius said. “Thankful? These things are required to do our jobs safely right now.”

Crecelius lauded the county’s Department of Emergency Management for setting up a private hotline for police officers to use to call the health department should they have concerns about being exposed while on the job.

“Right now they’re taking about 300 calls a day from the general public, so this allows our officers to get more immediate attention out in the field,” he said.

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