The Chicago Police Department Is Struggling To Protect Officers During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Chicago police recruits put together Personal Protective Equipment kits at Chicago Police Headquarters on Monday. The kits are intended for officers answering COVID-19 calls. But officials say they are running low on supplies.
Chicago police recruits put together personal protective equipment kits at Chicago Police Headquarters on Monday. The kits are intended for officers answering COVID-19 calls, but officials say they are running low on supplies. Chicago Police Department photo
Chicago police recruits put together Personal Protective Equipment kits at Chicago Police Headquarters on Monday. The kits are intended for officers answering COVID-19 calls. But officials say they are running low on supplies.
Chicago police recruits put together personal protective equipment kits at Chicago Police Headquarters on Monday. The kits are intended for officers answering COVID-19 calls, but officials say they are running low on supplies. Chicago Police Department photo

The Chicago Police Department Is Struggling To Protect Officers During The Coronavirus Pandemic

At Chicago police headquarters on Monday, recruits whose training at the academy has been suspended because of the coronavirus formed an assembly line to put together kits of personal protective equipment for officers going out to potential COVID-19 calls.

The goal is to establish coronavirus response teams in each police district throughout the city. Those teams will have access to the protective equipment, and they’ll answer calls that involve flu-like symptoms or respiratory problems.

But police officials don’t know when they’ll actually be able to establish those teams in all 22 districts because the department is running low on essential items.

The kits include the now infamously hard-to-get N95 masks recommended for protection against contracting COVID-19. As of Monday afternoon, the Chicago Police Department was just about out of the special solution needed to test the fit and seal of the masks after they’ve been fitted for individual officers.

Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said without that solution, CPD will not be able to give out its already limited supply of N95 masks.

“We're just at a critical point today where if we run out of the testing solution, we're going to have to stop the supply chain because there's no way to outfit the officers properly,” Guglielmi said.

At a press conference Monday, Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady confirmed that the N95 masks should not be used until they’ve been “fit-tested.”

Guglielmi said they’ve been in contact with the manufacturer and other chemical companies about getting more of the solution. He said they’ve also looked into whether they can make the solution themselves.

As of Monday afternoon, Guglielmi said the department was also nearly out of other basic supplies.

One veteran Chicago police officer, who asked not to be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media, said he was worried about not having enough hand sanitizer. He also said he was concerned about squad cars and other shared equipment not being cleaned between shifts.

“We’re concerned too,” Guglielmi said. “We’re really, really low on sanitizer. We're really, really low on wipes. As a matter of fact, I think we're going to run out of wipes to clean cars in the next 72 hours.”

Another officer, who also asked not to be named, said he was worried about supplies as well but that he believed the city was doing its best in the face of a unique and difficult situation.

Guglielmi said CPD is suffering from the same national shortage that is hurting hospitals and others elsewhere.

“The Police Department is no different than health care systems, we’re no different than the NYPD, we're no different than the LAPD. Every first responder agency is having a hard time today,” Guglielmi said.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday pushed back on the department’s assertion that they were in danger of running out of necessary supplies.

We are in daily contact with all our first responders,” Lightfoot said. “Whatever their needs are, we are meeting those needs.”

Meanwhile, as of Monday afternoon, four Chicago Police Department employees had tested positive for COVID-19.

The Police Department is telling employees who worked closely with the affected officers to keep coming to work and self-monitor for symptoms.

Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of the Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine said it was “wrong” for the department to tell those exposed employees to keep coming to work.

But Guglielmi said they had made the decision based on guidance from the Chicago Department of Public Health.

"We are being completely driven by what medical professionals tell us,” Guglielmi said.

Guglielmi said so far, none of the CPD officers who have tested positive for COVID-19 had come in contact with any of the other infected employees. He said all four of them worked in different facilities.

Guglielmi said it appears the officers each contracted COVID-19 through “community spread.”

“We haven't been able to find a place where [the four employees] connected paths,” Guglielmi said. “Furthermore, the officers that worked closer with these four officers, right now, no one has exhibited symptoms. But I want to be very careful. It's very early.”

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.