Not only do they deserve the proper equipment and supplies, they also deserve better screening before and after their shift.
As published in the Staten Island Advance
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pummel New York City, one thing has become abundantly clear: The men and women who serve and protect our city in their roles as police officers, firefighters, EMT workers, sanitation workers and correction officers are being placed at risk due to a municipal bureaucracy with distorted priorities and an absence of commonsense.
On March 13, the story broke that NYPD officers were being issued expired hand sanitizer and a single face mask as the sum total of their Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Tweets from City Hall claimed help was on the way and, while some came, the supply has not been steady. On Friday, 4,122 employees (at least triple the normal rate) were out sick with approximately 12% of them testing positive for the coronavirus while others have been denied tests, meaning the number of positive cases among the ranks is actually higher.
Likewise, other essential workers from across the city’s various departments continue to be infected at disturbing rates.
This past week, the Correction Officers Benevolent Association announced it had purchased 25,000 N95 masks on its own for its members who are deemed to be at high risk and I donated a few thousand pairs of nitrile gloves to them. The union’s president, Elias Husamudeen, has been outspoken in his opposition to City Hall’s ill-advised plan to release hundreds of inmates from Rikers Island instead of providing the PPE requested and isolation plan to stop the virus from spreading within city jails.
To add insult to injury, it was reported on Friday that the freed Rikers inmates are being given cellphones, cab fares and hotel rooms. All while officers had to raise money to buy their own protective equipment? Absolutely shameful.
My colleagues and I on the local level, both Republican and Democrat, are scavenging for supplies through donations and delivering them to hospitals, nursing homes, group homes, firehouses, police precincts, sanitation garages. But it’s not enough to meet the demand.
Mayor de Blasio should never have allowed it to reach this point where essential staff must rely on their union or donations for the bare minimum in protective equipment and, more importantly, it begs the question that if the union and I can locate these supplies, then why hasn’t the city ordered more over the last few weeks?
These public employees understand the important role they play and want to do their job but, if City Hall is going to put them to work, it needs to provide them the protective equipment to keep them healthy and safe. By putting our first responders and essential workers at risk, City Hall is putting all New Yorkers at increased risk.
Sanitation garages, firehouses, and police precincts are forced to temporarily close for cleaning after a member tests positive. These workers obviously can’t work from home and in the weeks ahead their numbers on active duty will continue to shrink due to the impact of COVID-19 on their ranks unless something is done very soon.
Not only do they deserve the proper equipment and supplies, they also deserve better screening before and after their shift. In addition, if symptomatic, their testing needs to be prioritized, so if they test negative, they can return to work as quickly as possible. If they end up being positive, then those they work closely with should also be tested to determine if they are silent carriers. This way they can self-quarantine and prevent the virus from spreading any further.
They, and all New Yorkers, also deserve the truth from Mayor de Blasio and his administration about the flow of protective equipment and the lack of urgency. If the city can’t (or won’t) provide it, the unions, elected officials and public need to know so we can collectively identify alternative supply solutions because, for some, this will be a matter of life or death.
New Yorkers are tough; we’ve been through the horror of 9/11 and the widespread destruction of Super Storm Sandy. When united and working together, we can deal with whatever lies ahead.
As Abraham Lincoln said, “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis.”