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Once Nearly COVID Free, Hundreds of SF Workers Quarantined

More than 300 employees are quarantining due to COVID exposure, stretching the city’s public transit and emergency response staff as they work to keep service schedules normal. The city’s 7-day new case average is 829.

(TNS) — San Francisco's dramatic rise in omicron cases is straining the city's essential services as hundreds of police officers, firefighters and transit operators began the new year under quarantine due to exposure or in isolation due to a positive COVID test.

As of Tuesday, 167 San Francisco police officers, 135 Fire Department personnel and 85 employees in the city's Municipal Transportation Agency were in quarantine due to a COVID exposure — illustrating just how fast the virus variant has spread through San Francisco in recent weeks. At 829, the city's current 7-day average of new cases is more than double last winter's deadly peak, city health officials said.

But despite the disruption of the highly infectious omicron variant, Mayor London Breed told reporters Tuesday that impact on residents so far has been minimal and that city departments are working to make sure essential services, such as public transit and law enforcement, run uninterrupted.

" San Francisco's workforce is well-protected and well-prepared to stay healthy through this surge," Breed said. "... Transit will be running, although we're asking for your patience. Frontline workers will be putting in overtime to make up for their quarantined colleagues. Trash is still being picked up. Police are still on patrol, and firefighters stand ready to respond. We're not shutting anything down. We're not closing businesses. This is not 2020."

The city's transportation agency, which operates Muni, is among the departments that have been affected by the rise in omicron cases. At least 28 of the SFMTA workers who reportedly tested positive last week were Muni operators responsible for keeping the city's buses and trains moving, said Julie Kirschbaum, the agency's director of transit.

Though the personnel shortages have not led to any schedule changes or route cancellations, officials warned that Muni riders could see delays in service as fewer operators cover runs. Kirschbaum said that the agency also has a "significant number of operators" who are quarantining because they were in close contact with someone who tested positive or from secondary impacts such as canceled child care.

"The SFMTA was having staffing constraints prior to the omicron variant, and the variant is stretching our ability to deliver service, so customers may experience longer wait times," Kirschbaum said, adding that the agency's Twitter account will provide updates on service impacts. "We really appreciate everybody's patience during this time."

The city's virus-related staffing constraints began last week as firefighters began working extra shifts to fill in for their 60 or so quarantined colleagues. City officials had braced for the rise in omicron cases. Before the Christmas holiday, the city's human resources department issued new guidance to city agencies recommending that they allow non-essential employees to work remotely until Jan. 18, said Mawuli Tugbenyoh, the HR department's chief of policy.

City public health officials urged residents to wear better quality masks to avoid putting essential workers at risk and further straining services.

"This biggest surge yet is taxing our cities in new ways, even more so than delta," Director of Health Dr. Grant Colfax said. "The new omicron variant is forcing us to learn to manage and to live among COVID while keeping our hospitals and clinics, schools, businesses and many other essential services operating."

(c)2022 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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