The coronavirus is hitting Miami-Dade’s criminal justice system hard.
In the past week, amid a surge in COVID-19 outbreaks across the state, at least five South Florida police officers have died because of complications from the virus.
As officials have moved to limit the number of people gathering inside courtrooms, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office reported Monday that in August, at least 33 employees have reported positive.
And in Miami-Dade jails, officials now say they may be extending shifts to help deal with the rising number of staff members — and inmates — who have been infected with or been exposed to COVID-19 in the latest surge in South Florida. As of Friday, 136 employees were home quarantining. That’s in addition to 188 inmates in the jail system who are positive with COVID, the department said.
“MDCR is experiencing an increasing number of sworn staff who have tested positive with COVID-19,” Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Director Daniel Junior wrote in a text alert to staff on Friday. “This is impacting staffing levels at our detention facilities. Therefore, all essential personnel have been placed on emergency standby.”
Despite the wide availability of vaccines, Florida has been hit in recent months by a surge in COVID-19 cases, fueled by the highly contagious delta variant. As of Sunday, more than 17,000 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state, many of them in South Florida.
Police officers have been hard hit. Statewide, at least seven police officers have died of COVID-19 complications in recent weeks. On Friday, Miami Beach police officers announced the death of 25-year veteran Eddy Perez, the same day that Florida Highway Patrol trooper Lazaro Febles was buried after losing his battle with the illness.
Within the ranks of Miami-Dade police, as of last week, 178 employees were being isolated after either contracting the virus or being exposed to it. The South Florida Police Benevolent Association said Monday it will be asking Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to reinstate a state of emergency, so that officers who contract the virus will again be eligible for worker compensation.
“The officers are at risk because they’re the ones interacting with the community,” PBA President Steadman Stahl said.
The percentage of overall South Florida law enforcement officers that have been vaccinated is unclear. Stahl said he is vaccinated. “If anyone asks me, I encourage them to get it,” Stahl said.
Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo “Freddy” Ramirez is unmoved in his belief that staff — sworn and civilian — should get the vaccine.
“The numbers don’t lie. We’ve had employees in and out of the hospital. One is fighting for her life now. Every day I get that phone call,” Ramirez said. “We’ve got to take politics out of this and look at the facts. We’ve got to look at the science. Any science says they’re getting sick.”
Ramirez said his entire family has been vaccinated — including a 13-year-old son who is dealing with diabetes. The director said a recent computer survey of sworn and civil police department employees, taken by about half the staff, showed 53 percent were vaccinated and 25 percent were not. The remaining 22 percent refused to answer.
Though the numbers closely mirror the general public, Ramirez said he’s well aware that it’s likely his sworn officers interact with people much more than the average person. “We have to protect ourselves and our families,” the director said.
In Miami, Police Chief Art Acevedo has suggested that officers may soon be required to get a vaccine, which has sparked friction with the Fraternal Order of Police. A mandate may be easier now that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Monday.
Miami-Dade courthouses, where officers normally are called to testify, have also been affected by the surge.
After 15 months of being closed to the public, Miami-Dade courthouses reopened to the public on June 28, with no mask requirements or mandates to social distance. But one month later, Miami-Dade’s chief judge, Nushin Sayfie, re-instituted a mask mandate and officials switched to a hybrid in-person and online model designed to “keep the volume of people at a minimum” inside the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building.
“All operating courtrooms will continue to be staffed with at least one Assistant State Attorney and one Assistant Public Defender, in addition to the judge, clerks, bailiffs, probation officers and correctional officers. Inmates will be brought to court only for hearings, pleas, and trials,” Circuit Judge Andrea Ricker Wolfson, the head of the criminal division, wrote in a memo on July 31.
Miami-Dade jail inmates will only be brought to court for important hearings, pleas and trials.
The outbreak in Miami-Dade jails and prisons — cramped enclosed spaces that imperil both inmates and officers — has been particularly acute throughout the pandemic.
At least four Miami-Dade County corrections officers have died, as have several inmates. The department has a staff of more than 3,000, and since the pandemic began, 1,063 have tested positive at one point or another.
The latest outbreak, according to the union, has centered on the Pre-Trial Detention Center, commonly called the Dade County Jail. Overall, the 188 positive inmates countywide is a huge jump — there were just 22 in June.
Officers may soon be switched to 12-hour shifts to help staff the jails, the department announced.
In the federal system, Miami’s Federal Detention Center has also been hit hard, according to the union that represents officers. On Monday, the union staged a protest at the downtown facility to bring attention to “chronic understaffing” and COVID-19 outbreaks that are imperiling officers.
Eric Speirs, the local union president, pointed out that FDC is still open to social visits while Coleman Correctional Institution — one of the largest federal prison complexes in the country located in Sumter County — has closed family in-person visits.
“Miami is the hotbed of COVID, and we’re not shut down? It makes no sense,” Speirs said. “The Bureau of Prisons is all over the map with their operations on COVID.”