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911 Dispatchers Fall to Coronavirus as Agency Response Falters

An internal trove of emails shows just how unprepared and unsure Broward County Sheriff’s Office leaders were in confronting the extreme danger the coronavirus posed to its emergency dispatch operators.

by Brittany Wallman, Sun Sentinel / June 3, 2020
Broward County, Fla., Sheriff's Office dispatcher Nikima Thompson died May 4 after battling COVID-19. TNS

(TNS) — “Your safety is our top priority,” a boss reassured employees in the crowded confines of Broward County’s three 911 centers in mid-March. She assured them the agency’s chief concern was protecting them from getting sick.

But the Sheriff’s Office also had another priority: keeping dispatchers working. And in two months’ time, 44 of them would contract COVID-19. One of them, a mother of four, would die.

Nikima Thompson was only 41.

An internal trove of emails obtained by the South Florida Sun Sentinel shows just how unprepared and unsure Sheriff’s Office leaders were in confronting the extreme danger the coronavirus posed to its emergency dispatch operators, who had no choice but to report to work. Their anguish and fear — as colleague after colleague tested positive — are evident throughout the messages.

As South Florida was sheltering in place and businesses were ordered closed, the burden to remain healthy was placed on the call-takers themselves. They were instructed by supervisors in emails to “feel free” to maintain distance from one another and were asked to “clean your workstations every four hours.”

Masks were optional until the crisis was well under way, internal correspondence shows, and employees who were exposed to co-workers with the virus were not allowed to isolate themselves at home.

Fearful employees repeatedly were told in late March and early April that they did not need to get tested unless they were showing symptoms, a manager explained — “due to the number of tests being limited in supply.”

That misguided advice conflicted with evidence that the disease can spread from people who are showing no symptoms at all. At the time, the CDC advised anyone exposed to a person with the virus to get tested or to isolate for 14 days, whether symptoms were present or not.

In a letter to the sheriff on April 24, the union for the communications workers blasted the agency for its “egregious lack of foresight,” writing that “the Communications Division’s response to this pandemic clearly was abysmal.”

Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony disagreed.

Responding May 11 to the Federation of Public Employees, Col. Oscar Llerena wrote a letter on behalf of the sheriff, laying out the agency’s efforts starting in mid-February to prepare for and minimize the pandemic. The first documented appearance of the coronavirus in Broward was March 6.

In a response to the Sun Sentinel on Friday, Tony said the agency did its best, without harming public safety.

"While in hindsight our initial efforts were not optimal, as guidance changed over time, we learned along with the rest of the country and enhanced our efforts and procedures,” the written statement says. “The lessons learned in those first weeks of the pandemic have helped us adapt so that BSO employees are safe throughout the many upcoming months the virus will still be active, while providing the best public safety to Broward County.”

In Llerena’s letter to the union, he listed two dozen steps the agency had taken.

A high-level work group met daily to respond to shifting events, he wrote. The agency also bought bulk cleaning and disinfectant supplies; undertook “deep cleaning” of the 911 offices once a week, with less thorough daily cleanings in between; and issued hand sanitizer and masks “with a requirement that the masks be worn when inside” the call centers.

That requirement, though, didn’t come until April 4, after several dispatchers had contracted the virus.

The internal emails show that early on, managers were doling out more simple directions: curb anxiety by maintaining a “healthy media diet” with breaks from news; “counterbalance the negativity with funny movies”; and “take deep breaths.”

According to the dispatchers’ union, 44 of nearly 400 employees contracted COVID-19. Only one was in the Pembroke Pines call center. The rate of infection in the Sunrise and Coconut Creek centers — a total 15% — far exceeds the 5.5% average in Florida.

Virus, and fears, spread

In her 17 years on the job, Nikima Thompson fielded calls from people who were scared, desperate, in crisis or despair, and she worked to get emergency workers out to help them.

Her service ended March 26, according to the Sheriff’s Office. She didn’t know it, but that would be her last day in the Coconut Creek regional call center. In six weeks, she would be dead.

The last day she was in the workplace, a grim announcement landed in her email in-box: A co-worker in her call center had COVID-19.

In an email to employees, Regional Communications Division Director Angela Mize said she was sad to relay that an employee in the call center five days prior "left work after feeling ill” and tested positive for the feared virus.

Mize told staff that the center would be cleaned, and among other measures, “we are also looking to purchase better temperature scanners as we believe the equipment that we have been given may not be entirely reliable.”

“I realize that this is unwelcome and frightening news,” she wrote, “and sadly we expected that this would simply be a matter of time before we had to make such an announcement.”

Thompson texted her “bestie” friend, real estate agent Tecovia Calvin: “Soooo someone at my job site has it.”

“Oh God,” Calvin replied.

A 911 colleague in Pembroke Pines, Josephine Rios, asked Mize if call-takers could be moved to a larger facility where they could work at least 6 feet away from one another. Call-takers commonly work back to back in U-shaped desks.

She was told that was not possible.

“We have no peace of mind, and we are anxious going into work with the unknown," she wrote in an email to Mize and co-workers.

In another email that day, Mize told employees they should be tested only if they “are exhibiting symptoms of the illness.” She said the agency was trying to get masks for everyone, but they were optional.

“Personnel may opt to wear the mask on duty without issue provided it doesn’t block your ability to be understood on phone/radio,” she advised on March 26.

Mize did not return an email or call to her cellphone for comment.

At the time of her email, health care workers and emergency responders nationwide were struggling to obtain enough masks to keep them safe.

On March 27, Thompson again texted her friend Tecovia Calvin about the situation at work: “It’s just a mess.” Thompson told her friend they weren’t given personal protective equipment.

“She was talking about masks, she was talking about hand sanitizer. She wanted Clorox wipes. I don’t think any of that was provided,” Calvin said. “So she was really upset because not only does she have four children to go home to, but she also takes care of her mother.”

A few days later, another dispatcher’s infection with COVID-19 was confirmed. This call-taker worked in Sunrise. Two days after that, a second dispatcher in Coconut Creek tested positive.

“[I] wish that I can tell you that this will be our very last case," Mize emailed employees, seemingly resigned that the spread could not be contained. "Sadly ... I cannot make that promise.“

By the beginning of April, life as everyone knew it had halted.

Florida — and the nation — was in a state of emergency. Disney World was closed. Restaurants, bars and beaches in Broward were locked up. Residents were ordered to shelter in place.

But masks and gloves were just being distributed to everyone in the call centers. Communications Site Manager Tara Thomas told employees in an email April 2 that “masks and gloves have been sent to all of the centers for your use. If you haven’t received your personal protective equipment, please ask a Duty Officer or Site Manager.”

That day, Thompson was hospitalized.

In a news conference April 3, with Thompson in the hospital and several other dispatchers confirmed with COVID-19, Sheriff Tony said there was no one with the virus in the dispatch centers.

The Sheriff’s Office corrected the erroneous statement that day.

“The sheriff mistakenly said no,” a news release announced. “The sheriff is fully aware that members of our communications staff have tested positive for COVID-19 and many of them are currently self-isolating because of possible exposure.”

The next day, a communications employee in the Sunrise call center, Sandra Bailey, emailed co-workers that a state Department of Health official told her that everyone in the call center who was around an employee who tested positive “is considered exposed” and should stay home until cleared by testing.

A co-worker had learned at work the day before of positive results, and Bailey said people who were around the employee, “including some that were only 3 feet away,” were back in the call center.

The sick person "had been in the bathroom, the breakroom and walked throughout the center,” she wrote, adding that a worker on the next shift soon would be sitting in the infected person’s chair. “I wish that person well.”

Only that week were employees ordered, on April 4, to wear masks — one day after the CDC recommended them for the general public.

Finally on April 11, a team of state Health Department experts arrived in hazmat suits. After touring the centers, they recommended putting in plexiglass partitions, installing more air filters and giving each employee a private allotment of hand sanitizer.

Nikima ‘loved that job’

Thompson was well suited for her role at the Sheriff’s Office: outgoing, helpful and dedicated.

“She loved what she did,” longtime friend Gertrude Love said. “Oh my gosh, she loved that job.”

The daughter of a Miami-Dade police officer and a bank manager, she was active in her church and the NAACP youth council as a child, according to family friend Glenda Garvin.

In recent years, Thompson had rekindled a romance with Love’s son, Rickey Wright. The two had first hit it off as kids, when Thompson was just 12. They found each other later on Facebook, his cousin, Becky Love, recalled.

She was excited about the future.

Then suddenly illness struck. From her hospital bed on April 2, she called her friend Tecovia Calvin. Thompson was coughing. Doctors confirmed the diagnosis while Calvin was on the phone.

“I was like, ‘Ok, we’re going to beat this, we are,’ you know? And I just started praying and everything. I knew she was scared because we had talked about it,” Calvin said of the virus.

The next day, Thompson’s mom, 78-year-old Geraldine Wilson, was hospitalized with COVID-19 as well, said Garvin, the family friend Thompson considered an “auntie.” Wilson had a history of strokes.

Nikima Thompson, a woman described as bold, bubbly, an attentive mother, a stylish chameleon with many looks,died on May 4. She had underlying health issues, according to the autopsy findings: diabetes, and high blood pressure.

She left behind four children: Aran, 22; Isaiah, 21; Justin, 16; and Heaven, 14.

Adding to the family tragedy, Thompson’s mom died May 29, “succumbing to COVID,” Mize told the Sheriff’s Office staff in an email.

Thompson is thought to be the first communications operator to die in the line of duty in Florida, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Her older sister, Gina Stewart, declined an interview with the Sun Sentinel, saying in a text message: “Talking about my sister now isn’t something I’m ready to do. No one in my family is.”

On the day after Thompson’s death, as her family and close friends drove to the Delray Medical Center to claim her body, they saw police cars and fire trucks everywhere.

Uniformed deputies, wearing masks, stood with their hands over their hearts.

Stewart’s knees buckled and she collapsed into a friend’s arms as an honor guard wheeled her sister’s flag-draped body to a nearby hearse.

“They had paramedics there. They had droves of motorcyclists there. They had undercover cops,” Garvin said. She called the send-off “so beautiful.”

A police motorcade escorted the hearse to the funeral home in Hollywood. On every overpass there were police, fire trucks and paramedics. Saluting. At the funeral home, Sheriff Tony and at least a dozen chiefs from other departments expressed their condolences to the family.

Later, Tony said he’d push for state law to be changed so that 911 call-takers are reclassified as “special risk” employees, like police and firefighters, in the Florida Retirement System. They would garner more generous benefits for their public service.

In the funeral procession for Thompson — over the radio — one of her colleagues asked for a moment of silence for “Uniform 12586. Thank you for more than 16 years of dedicated service to the Broward Sheriff’s Office. You are officially 10-7. Until we meet again, we’ll take it from here.”

10-7: Out of service, off duty.

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©2020 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

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