California’s workplace safety agency announced a $32,000 fine against the Santa Rosa Police Department on Tuesday, citing the department’s failure to safeguard its employees from the coronavirus, which afflicted at least nine Santa Rosa officers in the earliest weeks of the pandemic and killed a veteran detective.
Marylou Armer, an American Canyon resident who died March 31 from the respiratory disease, was exposed at work to a colleague who had known symptoms of COVID-19, Cal/OSHA disclosed for the first time Tuesday.
Armer, 43, was the first known California peace officer to have died from complications of the disease, and her loss marked a heart-wrenching and anxious period for Santa Rosa police, as the department faced a widening outbreak within its sworn ranks through at least mid-April.
Armer was also Napa County’s first COVID-19 fatality.
As the pandemic hit in March, the Santa Rosa Police Department failed to effectively screen its employees for the coronavirus, nor did the agency have a process to deal with people who showed symptoms of having the virus, Cal/OSHA found.
In March and April, some police department employees with virus symptoms were allowed to go to work despite orders from state and county health officials that recommended employers tell such workers to stay home, Cal/OSHA said in its announcement.
“The Santa Rosa Police Department failed to implement required screening and referral procedures for persons exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms during the month of March 2020, and failed to report to Cal/OSHA multiple serious illnesses suffered by employees who contracted COVID-19,” the agency said in the statement.
Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro said he has yet to see Cal/OSHA’s investigative reports or the resulting penalties called out by regulators, but he defended his agency’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, saying it aligned with citywide protocols and county health orders.
The department told employees with flu-like symptoms to stay home in early March and began implementing safety protocols such as checking employee temperatures and requiring social distancing soon after they learned employees had tested positive for the virus, Navarro said. The first confirmed case within the department came on March 23, Navarro said.
“We had no indication that our officers had been in contact with anybody who had been COVID-positive prior to the first positive test,” Navarro said. “When we got that first positive test, we acted very quickly. We put protocols into place.”
Three days later, Santa Rosa officials sent the county’s public health department information about what the city and its police force were doing to prevent employees from contracting the coronavirus.
The department on March 29 instituted a schedule switch that gave officers a two-week break between three- and four-day work shifts, a change intended to give officers enough to present symptoms and possibly to recover if infected, Navarro said.
By that time, however, Armer had been in a Vallejo hospital for six days. A Napa County resident, she joined the department in 1999 as a civilian field evidence technician and became an officer in 2008. When she fell ill, she sought and was denied testing by Kaiser Permanente on three occasions, according to family, before finally being tested March 23 and admitted.
Attempts on Tuesday to reach Armer’s sister, Mari Lau, were not successful.
By mid-April, eight other officers in the department had contracted the virus. Navarro said he is unaware of any other positive cases in the department, with more than 170 officers.
The agency reverted back to normal schedules in late May, though has kept other safety precautions like the regular cleaning of the department’s headquarters and temperature checks.
“Those came out of direct information that we were getting from the county health officer,” Navarro said of the health protocols. “We moved very quickly, as quickly as we could because we knew this was a serious situation.”
The state-mandated fines against the Santa Rosa Police Department were the largest of seven penalties announced by Cal/OSHA Tuesday against seven Bay Area employers who were found to have violated workplace safety and health regulations related to the pandemic.
Three of the penalties against the Santa Rosa Police Department stemmed from workplace regulations that require employers to protect their workers from diseases that can spread through air particles or droplets, such as tuberculosis or measles, according to a copy of Cal/OSHA’s notice to the Santa Rosa Police Department.
While the coronavirus pandemic is new, police departments have long been trained on how to protect their workers from illnesses that can pass from one person to another through the air, said Erika Monterroza, a Cal/OSHA spokeswoman
“Law enforcement, they deal with situations where people have tuberculosis or other types of diseases and they have to protect their officers from that,” Monterroza said. “It’s true that the pandemic is at a scale that we haven’t seen before. ... but it is a requirement that public safety employers really think this through.”
The department, however, had not received any information from Cal/OSHA, county health officials or the Centers for Disease Control between March and May that the virus was considered aerosol transmissible, a city press release said.
A fourth penalty was related to the agency’s failure to notify Cal/OSHA about three serious cases of the coronavirus among its staff, including Armer’s, within the state-mandated eight hours of learning of those illnesses, Monterroza said.
Serious illnesses are defined as those that occur in the workplace and which send an employee to a hospital for something other than observation, Monterroza said.
Cal/OSHA began their investigation into Santa Rosa Police Department two weeks after Armer’s death, when they learned of the work-related fatality through media reports, Monterroza said. The police department had failed to report her death to state regulators, according to Cal/OSHA.
By that point department leaders had already been racing to deal with a widening outbreak that strained the police force and prompted changes in how it deployed officers.
“This is something that we have not seen in over 100 years and this is really new to all of us, so we’re all learning,” Navarro said on April 1. “We’re putting our best foot forward.”
He added on Tuesday that he was not aware of any employees who had signs of the coronavirus and who were allowed to come into work.
City officials were notified of the Cal/OSHA citations on Friday but had not received documents regarding the fines or related investigative reports as of Tuesday, said Adriane Mertens, a city spokeswoman.
Navarro said he and city staff needed to review Cal/OSHA’s findings before deciding whether they would appeal some or all of the allegations to the Occupational Safety & Health Appeals Board. The agency has 15 days from when they receive the citation to request the appeal.
The Santa Rosa Police Department was the lone public safety agency called out by Cal/OSHA in the slate of fines and the only entity in Sonoma County. The other six fined were health care agencies or skilled nursing facilities in San Francisco, San Jose and Hayward.
“The employers were cited for not protecting workers from exposure to COVID-19 because they did not take steps to update their workplace safety plans to properly address hazards related to the virus,” OSHA said.
The fines ranged from $32,000 penalty for Santa Rosa police to $2,060 for the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.
Watch Now: Napa County coronavirus testing site volunteers discuss their work
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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