How COVID-19 spread through the Detroit Police Department
Officials believe officers were first exposed during a March 6th community event and the virus quickly spread, putting nearly 20% of the ranks in quarantine
Joe Guillen and Gina Kaufman
Detroit Free Press
DETROIT — The spread of coronavirus that has swept through the Detroit Police Department — infecting Chief James Craig and putting nearly 20% of sworn officers in quarantine — was in its early stages at an east side community event on March 6.
That Friday morning, the department's 9th Precinct hosted Police and Pancakes, a community event that drew about 100 people — police officers, high school students and community leaders.
In the weeks since, the event has emerged as one of the first known situations where officers were exposed. Three officers who attended have tested positive for COVID-19 and 30 to 40 were quarantined, said Assistant Chief David LeValley, who himself was quarantined after giving a speech at the event.
The guest list also included Marlowe Stoudamire, a business consultant and Detroit community leader who died March 24 from COVID-19. Stoudamire was a presenter at Police and Pancakes, which was held at the Ford Resource and Engagement Center on Maddelein Street.
“Certainly that was one of the early cases — one of the early cases in the area that we were made aware of, and there were a number of us that went into quarantine,” LeValley said.
Every precinct in the department has now been affected by the pandemic, as have members of homicide, commercial auto theft and other specialized units. The 9th precinct was among those hardest hit, with 46 members quarantined, LeValley said Friday.
The virus' spread through the department and through the region as a whole has officers patrolling on edge. Multiple exposures — including the pancake breakfast, those that are travel-related, contact with infected coworkers and during the course of policing — had sent 556 Detroit Police Department employees, including 468 sworn members, into quarantine as of Friday. That same day, officials said 39 officers had tested positive for COVID-19 and the department previously announced the deaths of two members.
"You just don’t know what’s going on," said William Davis, who sits on the Board of Police Commissioners. "A lot of them are nervous and apprehensive, especially they don’t want to get anything and bring it to their families."
LeValley said the department has ample supplies of hand sanitizer, masks and other protective gear. But the pandemic is a danger unlike any the police force has encountered.
The department has set up a command center to respond to the outbreak and is prepared for a mass mobilization — not seen since the massive blackout of 2003 — should it reach a critical level, LeValley said. That would require the entire department to work 13-hour shifts.
“We can train all day for certain kinds of threats out on the street that they can see. But when you’re dealing with something that you can’t see, it’s nerve-wracking,” he said. “We’re not in a position to stay home and work from home, we just have to go out and face it head on.
"It definitely is making officers nervous.”
Warnings came almost two weeks later
The Detroit Health Department did not learn about the positive COVID-19 test results tied to the Police and Pancakes event until March 17, department spokesman Vickie Winn said. The health department conducted contact investigations and recommended that officers in attendance go into quarantine through March 20, two weeks after the breakfast.
The quarantine recommendations were made to all attendees though a notification the department posted on its website March 18. The notice was removed on March 24th, Winn said.
The Free Press asked the health department Wednesday about possible exposure to the police department after it learned Stoudamire was at the Police and Pancakes event. Winn did not provide any information about infected members of the police department that LeValley described two days later.
When asked if anyone else at the event tested positive, Winn said she could not provide a complete answer.
“The event was open to the public so no complete guest list was available. Because DHD does not receive negative test results from hospitals and commercial labs, we would not have a complete picture of test results, and DHD only reports on Detroit residents,” Winn, the public health division administrator and communications director for the department, wrote in an email.
Told Friday that three officers who attended the Police and Pancakes event tested positive for COVID-19, Winn again said her department had limited information about the guest list.
“At that time when I responded to you, that was an appropriate response,” she said. “We’re not tracking by occupation, we’re tracking by location, residence.”
Photos of the Police and Pancakes event on social media show some students from Denby High School were there. Denby’s principal reported no issues, according to Chrystal Wilson, spokeswoman for the Detroit Public Schools Community District.
“There has not been any concern and no one has reached out with any messages of caution or concern,” Wilson wrote in an email on Wednesday.
It does not appear the Detroit Health Department reached out to the school district about the event. Winn referred to the online notice when asked whether the school district was contacted after the health department learned of the positive COVID-19 test result.
Police headquarters takes a hit
The outbreak has hit the city's public safety headquarters, too.
This week, officials announced the deaths of homicide Capt. Jonathan Parnell and a 911 call taker. Both worked in the headquarters building. Officials have not released the name of the call taker.
Mayor Mike Duggan said at a news conference Tuesday that the call taker went on vacation out of state the week of March 9 and returned to work March 16, but wasn't feeling well and had taken a couple days off of work that week. He later died after being admitted to the intensive care unit at a suburban hospital, Duggan said.
LeValley confirmed another person from homicide had also tested positive.
So did Detroit Police Officer Edward Chesher, who works in the fire investigation unit. He told the Free Press on Friday that he took a scuba diving trip to Florida earlier this month, at a time when a full-fledged outbreak across the country was not yet apparent.
He flew home, landing after midnight on March 9 at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, and reported for work by 7 a.m. at the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters that day. He went to work every day that week and had no symptoms. But by Saturday — March 14 — a slight cough started. Congestion, too.
Chesher said he did projects around the house all weekend. By Sunday night, he had a low-grade fever. The next morning he got ready for work, but he changed his mind and told his wife he wanted to get tested.
“I said, ‘God, I just hate to go to work and it ends up being this coronavirus,’ ” said Chesher, 43.
On Monday, March 16, he got tested.
“Tuesday, it hit me like a brick wall.”
He had aches, pains, fatigue, chills, sweating. His appetite started to disappear. He had headaches throughout the day. The slight fever was still there and over the course of his illness never rose above 101 degrees.
That Wednesday, the day his shortness of breath started, Chesher learned he had the coronavirus. He assumed he picked it up while traveling and said, at the time, there were only a handful of other confirmed cases across the state. His initial feeling was guilt.
“I’m watching this spread like wildfire. Am I one of the people that brought this to this area?” Chesher said.
He learned other officers had been experiencing symptoms, too, and realized other cases were likely there all along — they had just been unknown.
Pat McNulty, chief of the fire investigation division, said even before Chesher’s case, the unit had already started researching areas to relocate in case the public safety headquarters was affected and two weeks ago moved to the department’s fire boat facility. He said the unit has 25 members — 16 from fire and nine from the police department. Six police officers from the unit and one fire investigator are out, either quarantined or having tested positive for COVID-19, he said.
“I think this is just one of those things where perseverance and really being very self-aware of protecting yourself is going to go a long way to getting through this,” McNulty said. “The job still has to get done. Investigations still have to be made. You know, people still have to be cared for and so fire and EMS have been doing a great job as far as getting through this. They’ve been on the front lines.”
Chesher said he knows of a member of his unit who tested positive, as well as a person he sat next to during a training day a few days before he fell ill.
He said his wife has had symptoms, too, but was not tested because medical officials said to assume she also has the virus. As of Friday, the couple were still quarantined with their three daughters. Chesher said their symptoms have never been so bad they felt they needed to go to the hospital. Most of his symptoms have subsided, but he is still feverish and dealing with a cough.
He said he has received an outpouring of support.
“I feel personally that DPD has gone above and beyond everything in their ability to protect us,” Chesher said.
In a post on Facebook, Chesher cautioned people to stay at home.
“I hope and pray,” he wrote, “that by putting a face to this virus will open peoples eyes and begin to take this seriously.”
24-hour command center
The police department set up a 24-hour command center for its coronavirus response. Using the city’s protocols, officers experiencing symptoms are interviewed and, in some cases, tested.
LeValley said the majority of exposures have been from contact with coworkers. He said police facilities are being cleaned frequently.
Mayor Mike Duggan announced Friday that Chief Craig had just been diagnosed with COVID-19, saying Craig had mild symptoms. At that news conference, the mayor said there needs to be a focus on preventing officers from infecting each other.
"Police stations and precincts tend not to be designed in a way to make social distance easy and it's not really a part of the culture, and we're going to have to dramatically change the way that we are doing this," he said.
When there is a positive test, the department traces who came into close contact with that person. Close contact is defined as being within six feet for a period of at least 10 minutes. Any members of the police department within close contact of a person who tested positive is put under quarantine for 14 days from the time of their contact.
“Just general passing of somebody who tested positive doesn’t necessarily qualify — or even being in the same room, depending on the size of the room,” LeValley said. “We’ve had some individuals who tested positive where they were in large meetings. Unless we determine that they really had close contact or we were able to identify the individuals who were sitting around them for an extended period of time, we’ll put those individuals off, but not necessarily everybody in the room.”