MIAMI, FL — Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina recalled fighting a slight cough last week as he worked in his downtown office wearing a mask and practicing social distancing.
“The cough didn’t bother me, and it wasn’t a persistent cough, but I thought, ‘I’m going to go home,'” the chief told Patch in an interview Wednesday. “I don’t want anyone to hear me cough. You know how that works. You cough, and everybody gives you the look.”
The cough proved more than a minor inconvenience, as Colina later tested positive for the new coronavirus. His diagnosis came less than a month after Miami Mayor Franis Suaerz announced he had beaten the virus.
Colina’s police officers in Miami are still learning to navigate the challenges posed by the mysterious illness through a combination of protective gear, social distancing, work-from-home arrangements, testing and an analysis of the locations where people have tested positive.
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Miami is part of Miami-Dade County, which has surpassed more than 10,000 confirmed cases of the virus and is considered to be the epicenter of Florida’s coronavirus outbreak.
In all, 20 Miami police officers and one civilian had tested positive for the new coronavirus as of Wednesday. The majority of officers have been asymptomatic. Six employees who tested positive have already returned to work, according to the chief, who said the agency has nearly 1,800 employees, including 1,371 officers.
“It’s a manageable number for us because we prepared for a bigger number. We’ve been very aggressive sending people home,” Colina said. “That’s why I think that number may be higher than some other agencies our size, just because obviously the more people you test, the more people you discover are positive.”
Cooperation With Health Officials
The chief said Miami police have been working with the Florida Department of Health to obtain the addresses of people who test positive for the new coronavirus in the city, information that has generated controversy in other parts of the country.
“We haven’t asked for names. What we have asked the Department of Health for is locations,” Colina told Patch. “We want to be able to tell a first responder, ‘If you are going to that location, use every precaution because someone there may be ill.'”
He said police have are using the health department information to see if there had been any previous calls at the addresses of sick people up to two weeks before a positive test result.
“Remember, just because you have an address, that person may not even be there. That’s just the address they used,” Colina said. “They may not be symptomatic, or they may not even be ill anymore.”
He said that information has been used to identify possible points of exposures for officers and the community they serve.
“We wanted to go back two weeks and see if anyone had responded there or made an arrest, or interacted for any length of time with someone at that location,” the chief said. “If we discovered that — and oftentimes we did — we would send those officers home, have them quarantined, perhaps get them tested.”
While most people have remained indoors, police are still moving about the community and could otherwise inadvertently spread the illness.
“What we didn’t want is to have officers out in the field that are asymptomatic, making people sick because the majority of the people are inside,” Colina said. “But the officers there are actively patrolling all the time, and making contact with people. We didn’t want a scenario where they are creating more harm than good.”
Officers Wear Masks And Gloves
For most calls these days in Miami, officers have been wearing gloves and masks despite a number of unseasonably warm days in the 80s and 90s.
“The heat so far has not been an issue. I mean, it’s hot — don’t get me wrong. But the officers are kind of used to that down here; and even if they have to wear a mask, they’re still kind of used to dealing with the heat,” the chief said. “For the most part, they’ve done a good job wearing their masks when they respond to calls.”
Even so, some of the younger officers have had to be reminded of the importance of wearing protective masks, particularly the N95, when they go on a call in an area that has had a positive test result.
“We know that some of the younger officers want to go out and do good police work. They are not thinking about getting sick or making someone sick,” Colina said. “We’re making sure that we remind them constantly: ‘Hey remember wear your mask. Wear your gloves.'”
Social Distancing At Odds
The social distancing changes have been among the most difficult for Miami’s predominantly Latin culture to embrace, even within the agency.
“We like to hug. We like to kiss. We like to shake hands. But even working when you go on a call, we get pretty close,” Colina conceded. “That’s been an adjustment, but honestly I think that’s a good one. I think we should keep a distance a little bit, for both the officer’s health and the person we’re dealing with — for their health as well.”
That is one of the recent changes that may be carried forward after the immediate threat passes. Other lessons have been learned in addressing the health crisis that may make sense for the police agency.
Changes That Boost Efficiency
“We’ve discovered that we can work far more efficiently. The officer in the field — the patrol officer — that person has to be in the field. There’s no way around that,” Colina said. “But we have a lot of other elements that can function efficiently — perhaps even more so — at home than at our physical address.
“What’s appealing about that is that that’s one less car in the field, one less car driving, less pollution,” the chief asserted. “That employee is less likely to call in sick because they can work from home. They’re more efficient.”
About half of the Miami detectives have been working out of their homes since the coronavirus outbreak struck.
“They come and go. We alternate them back and forth because they are able to work on their case files and make their phone calls,” he said. “When they have to go visit someone to take a statement or something, they just do that by leaving their home instead of coming into the office.”
Even more of the department’s administrative division has been working from home. This includes officers and employees who work in background, training as well as payroll and budgetary functions.
“Easily 60, 70 percent of those are working from home,” said Colina. “That’s also by design, because we want to use those as a reserve in case we lose officers from patrol. Those are going to be our new patrol officers.”
Virtual Meetings Will Stay
The department will probably make greater use of virtual meetings in the future based on lessons learned from this new normal.
“Some of the meetings we’ve had where we would bring all of these people into our headquarters — why put them in a car, send them out on the street, spend fuel, pollute the environment, kill time when we can just do it virtually like we’ve been doing,” the chief said. “We’re going to keep some of that.”
In his absence from police headquarters, Colina named Deputy Chief Ronald Papier as acting chief.
Chief’s Symptoms Worsened
Colina’s condition worsened during the night of April 16 after leaving the office earlier in the day. The chief woke up in the middle of the night with stomach pain that he attributed to a bad meal at the time.
But by morning, the next day on April 17, the chief had a fever, headache and fatigue to go along with his cough and stomach pain. He called for a rapid test and learned he had the illness.
“The doctor told me, ‘Your body is probably telling you to sleep and lie down, but you need to fight that,'” Colina recalled. “‘You need to get up, walk around in your backyard, exercise your lungs, get fresh air, let the sun hit you.’ Honestly, once I did that, I did in fact feel better.”
Colina said he was feeling much better when he spoke with Patch Wednesday and had already resumed more of his duties.
“I probably could have had some virtual meetings sooner — probably yesterday, for example,” Colina acknowledged. “But I didn’t want to be in the middle of a meeting and cough, or lose my breath and frighten people because everybody’s worried.”
Drop In Violent Crime
One bright spot for Miami police has been that violent crime appears to have taken a holiday in this city of about 470,000. That hasn’t been the case in every major city.
“We’re one of the fortunate ones where we’ve had a pretty significant reduction in violent crime. The calls have been fairly consistent throughout the city — just a lot less with the exception of Wynwood, for example — a very popular neighborhood where we typically have a lot of calls for service,” Colina said. “We’ve had very little calls there because it’s predominantly made up of cafes and bars and galleries. Obviously, everything there is closed.”
Potential Abuse Victims Contacted
Unlike some cities, which have seen a jump in domestic violence as residents have been forced to remain in close quarters, Miami has not seen any more of those types of cases than at other times. Colina said his agency has been proactive about reaching out to potential victims.
“We have victim advocates that we have had calling a lot of our previous victims to kind of proactively check in on them,” Colina explained. “Normally, when there’s domestic violence, you either call at that very moment — because you are desperate and afraid — or you wait for that person to not be there.”
Despite the lack of additional calls, the chief is concerned some victims may not have an opportunity to call police before tragedy strikes.
“That worries us. We want to make contact with some of these folks to see if they need us,” he said.
First Encounter With Coronavirus
Colina does not know how he contracted the virus. He self-quarantined in March after Suarez tested positive. But the chief did not test positive at that time.
“Because of when I became symptomatic, I probably contracted the disease 10 days or so ago,” he said. Four other people with whom the chief had been in close contact have self-quarantined, but none have tested positive so far.
Listen To Health Care Experts
Colina’s experience has shown him how contagious the coronavirus can be even as Florida appears to be shifting its focus from containing the spread of the pandemic to reopening the state and getting people back to work.
“I can tell you that I have been very careful, and yet I still contracted the virus,” Colina added. “We already know that it is so incredibly contagious. It would be so discouraging, I think to all of us —our psyche — if we were too quick to go back to normal, and then took another heavy hit in terms of people becoming ill. I think we should take our cue from our health professionals.”
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