From solid waste collectors to firefighters, Houston’s public workers facing strain from coronavirus exposures

Firefighters, police officers, solid waste collectors and bus drivers in Houston have all been affected by coronavirus exposure. (Courtesy Pexel)
Firefighters, police officers, solid waste collectors and bus drivers in Houston have all been affected by coronavirus exposure. (Courtesy Pexel)

Firefighters, police officers, solid waste collectors and bus drivers in Houston have all been affected by coronavirus exposure. (Courtesy Pexel)

Houston’s core city services are being strained by coronavirus exposures, city leaders report.

As of July 9, 73 solid waste drivers, 82 METRO workers, 234 firefighters and 219 police officers were in quarantine for exposure to the virus.

The numbers fluctuate daily, with some workers entering quarantine and others returning to work, but the total amounts are higher than at any other point during the pandemic.

In late March, ahead of the first peak of the outbreak in Houston, the police and fire departments reported about 300 quarantined first responders collectively.

“They are not necessarily getting it from the workplace, but from the community itself,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Each department so far has been impacted differently by the added strain on personnel. The fire department has recently seen a slight decrease in quarantine numbers and is still able to staff all stations during each shift. It does at times, have to take a ladder truck out of service, Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said.

Peña said although the department is seeing an uptick in calls, he is worried some residents are waiting too long to seek help due to fears of the virus.

Firefighters are seeing an uptick in at-home deaths, Peña said. The Houston Health Department reported over 120 at-home deaths in the last week of June as compared to about 80 in both 2018 and 2019.

“I want to stress to this community: Do not wait to call 911. If you're having cardiac issues, signs or symptoms of a stroke, do not wait too long because these numbers and this data are not moving in the right direction,” Peña said. “We would much rather we take you to the hospital than arrive too late.”

Houston Police are also able to maintain proper staffing levels; however, the department is monitoring three hospitalized employees, including one on a respirator, among its ranks, Police Chief Art Acevedo told reporters July 9.

In the solid waste department, the number of quarantined workers was beginning to cause delays in service, Mayor Sylvester Turner said. In the meantime, the city has entered into temporary contracts with private trash collectors to fill in the gaps.

Serving all of Harris County, METRO implemented a 50% reduction in seating capacity to follow social distancing measures earlier in the pandemic and adjusted transportation schedules for bus, light rail and Park & Ride.

However, METRO has not reduced service because of these positive case reports, according to a METRO spokesperson.

On June 25, METRO’s board of directors voted to require all riders, employees, contractors and visitors to wear a face covering in all vehicles, facilities and transit centers.
By Emma Whalen
Emma is Community Impact Newspaper's Houston City Hall reporter. Previously, she covered public health, education and features for several Austin-area publications. A Boston native, she is a former student athlete and alumna of The University of Texas at Austin.
By Hunter Marrow
Hunter Marrow came to Community Impact Newspaper in January 2020. Before that, Hunter covered local news in Ontario, OR for three years, covering municipal issues, crime, and education across Malheur County and across the border into Idaho.


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