Earlier this year, Northland law enforcement agencies collaborated with city officials to create emergency plans in case police officers and staff workers tested positive for COVID-19 or were forced into quarantine. In recent weeks, the Duluth Police Department moved to enact their plans after losing its chief and numerus officers and staff members to infection or quarantine due to contact tracing.
As the coronavirus infiltrates the Iron Range, police departments in Hibbing and Virginia are now facing the possibility of having to push ahead with their own emergency plans.
For now, local officials say that only a few officers and staff have been infected or have stayed home due to exposure. But with the rising number of area cases, the small departments are acknowledging their staffing limitations and the possibilities of having to implement backup options to keep on patrolling their cities during the upcoming winter months.
The Duluth Police Department, with 158 officers and 40 other employees, recently announced switching to an emergency staffing schedule after about a quarter of employees went into quarantine, the Star Tribune reported. As of Tuesday, 17 staff members tested positive for the virus and 31 employees, including Police Chief Mike Tusken, were in quarantine. To combat the staff shortage, officials said they planned to start sending investigative officers on Thursday to back up patrol by working five consecutive, 12-hour days, before quarantining for a 10-day stretch.
Due to a lower number of infection and quarantine rates, the police departments in Hibbing and Virginia have not yet implemented emergency plans.
Chief Steve Estey, overseeing a department of 28 officers and three civilian staff members in Hibbing, recently reported that only one officer had tested positive for COVID-19, while several others had been forced to quarantine after being exposed to someone with the virus.
“We have had officers and staff need to be home due to quarantines, but we have been very fortunate and have been able to fill open shifts,” Estey wrote in an email to the Mesabi Tribune on Thursday. “Our officers have been stepping up to the plate when a shift has become available to fill and have been watching out for each other through this.”
In neighboring Virginia, Deputy Police Chief Chad Nickila helps run a department of 24 officers, three staff and one parking monitor. He noted that none of the officers have tested positive for the virus, so far.
Still, the department has “had a handful of officers that have lost time due to possible exposures but after negative COVID tests were able to return to work after a quarantine period,” he wrote in an email Friday. “There has been a mix of work related potential exposures and out of work potential exposures.”
Similar to Duluth, the Hibbing and Virginia agencies have alternate schedules to follow if the coronavirus creates staffing issues.
The City of Hibbing and the local police department established an emergency staffing plan several months ago to include “all special assignments like the school resource officer, investigations, drug task force and administration working patrol shifts,” Estey wrote. “Fortunately we have not had to implement our emergency plan to date.”
The Virginia plan calls for the “officers working more days in a row and having more days off in between swings to mimic a potential 14 day quarantine period,” Nickila wrote. “We currently do not see the need to go to the alternate schedule but are prepared to do so if necessary.”
As of Friday, St. Louis County reported 5,213 cases and 82 deaths. The increased number of cases in the county have forced Iron Range based hospitals and long-term care facilities to rely on emergency plans to counteract losing workers to infection and quarantine. The smaller law enforcement agencies in Hibbing and Virginia are now bracing themselves for similar situations, while keeping up with their current policing efforts.
“When an officer is out for a period due to a potential exposure, it certainly puts a strain on the department,” Nickila wrote. “As a smaller department, we do not have a significant number of extra staff to fill in if there is a loss of time for several officers.”
For now, officers in Hibbing are following the city’s COVID-19 safety plan that requires on-duty officers to wear face masks while inside the police department, Estey wrote. And officers in Virginia are following mask-wearing plans from the Minnesota Health Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nickila added.
The Virginia police department has been taking steps to limit potential exposure to the officers. “If a call can be handled over the phone instead of face-to-face we certainly encourage our officers to utilize this option,” Nickila wrote. “When responding to a residence having individuals step outside to speak with an officer is obviously safer for our officers and the community member. This is becoming more difficult as we lurch into the winter months but we will adjust accordingly.”
Nickila added that the department has also tried to limit officers coming in to work on their otherwise scheduled days off to limit their exposure to staff members.
Estey said he believes the biggest challenge for the officers might be “the biggest lasting effects the virus may have on them and their personal well-being,” he wrote. He commended his officers and added, “Officers are often dealing with situations they don’t normally see due to the virus. The public is also going through a challenging time due to the virus and our calls for depression type situations have gone up slightly.”
He continued, “This is a difficult time in our country for every person whether it has a big or small impact on them,” Estey wrote. “I ask our community to be patient with each other during these uncertain times.”
Angie Riebe contributed reporting to this article.