UPDATE: COVID-19 surge hits Long Beach Fire Department; positive case count now up to 46

A surge in COVID-19 cases across the city and region has also hit the Long Beach Fire Department with 46 positive cases reported among fire personnel over the past five days, according to LBFD Chief Xavier Espino.

In a statement issued Sunday, Espino said the “significant increase” in positive cases has not resulted in any fire personnel being hospitalized or experiencing severe symptoms. The majority of the positive cases, he said, were breakthrough infections of fully vaccinated fire personnel, most of whom are asymptomatic or exhibiting mild symptoms.

At the time Espino’s statement was issued Sunday the department was reporting “over 30” positive cases but a city spokesperson said Monday evening the positive tests within the department had grown to 46.

Beyond the 46 who tested positive, no other Fire Department employees are in quarantine, according to an LBFD spokesman. All employees are subject to weekly testing and are required to self-monitor if they’ve been exposed and to stay home and be tested if they are symptomatic. Espino said that response times would not be affected by the sudden jump in infections.

“We have constructed contingency plans to ensure we maintain our response times and service capabilities,” Espino said in a statement. “When our community calls 911 for assistance we will continue to respond and provide the excellent service they need and deserve, just as we have done throughout the course of this pandemic.”

COVID-19 cases have seen steep increases in the region over the past week, with the omicron variant believed to be behind the most recent wave of infections.

Los Angeles County cases jumped from daily averages of around 3,000 cases last week to over 9,000 new cases per day for the past three days, according to county data.

Long Beach has averaged 237 new cases per day over the past five days, more than double last week when the city saw about 96 cases per day, according to the most recent data posted by Long Beach’s health department.

The city is now averaging 24 new daily cases per 100,000 people with a test positivity rate of 3.8%. On Dec. 5, when cases began to spike, the city was averaging just 8.4 cases per 100,000 people and a test positivity rate of 2.8%, according to the city’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Neither the county nor the city has updated their dashboards for testing done over the holiday weekend.

The number of cases recorded in the fire department represents more than 10% of its sworn personnel. Those who tested positive are eligible to return after 7-10 days, depending on when they can produce a negative test, a department spokesperson said.

Long Beach firefighters have experienced spikes in infections in the past but no reported outbreaks have been as big as the number of cases Espino acknowledged this week.

The city has yet to implement a vaccine mandate for city employees, something it announced it would pursue in October because of the cost of weekly testing ($110,000 each week), positive tests and quarantining others affecting city departments from functioning properly, and other factors, including the availability of a vaccine.

City management and individual city employee unions have been meeting since then to hammer out the details, such as when an employee would have to provide proof of vaccination and what will happen to them if they choose not to comply with the mandate.

Unpaid leave, suspensions and termination could ultimately be consequences faced under the city’s mandate when it goes into effect.

As of Dec. 27, 78% of LBFD employees, but just 70% of its sworn employees, had shown proof of vaccination, according to city data. City employees as a whole have reached the 84% mark for being fully vaccinated but some departments continue to lag behind.

The Long Beach Police Department  has the lowest vaccination rate of any city department with 68% of its employees being fully vaccinated as of Monday, a rate that is smaller when accounting for just sworn police officers. Just 60% of the city’s sworn police force has provided proof of being fully vaccinated.

Editor’s note: The story has been updated with more recent data from the city of Long Beach including an update that additional fire personnel have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Monday. 

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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