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First responders across the country are hit hard by the omicron variant

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Across the country, police and fire departments have struggled this week with huge numbers of first responders calling in sick with COVID. It's gotten particularly bad in Dallas, where nearly 1 out of every 5 firefighters is out. From member station KERA, Haya Panjwani reports on how the city is responding to the rise in cases among its first responders.

HAYA PANJWANI, BYLINE: Over the past week, 179 people have called in sick from the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department. That's the highest number of staff that have ever been out before. The fire rescue department is already short-staffed, so the agency is paying some staff overtime to respond to the high demand of calls. Jim McDade is the president of the Dallas Fire Fighters Association.

JIM MCDADE: We have minimum staffing, so we just pay overtime to staff those positions. Firefighters are just working more overtime right now.

PANJWANI: The Dallas Police Department has had dozens of officers and support staff call out this week, too. Officials say they're concerned about the surge since it's different from past coronavirus trends. Here's Sergeant Warren Mitchell.

WARREN MITCHELL: We have seen a dramatic increase because, early part of December, end of October - early part of December, you know, we were averaging two, three employees a week testing positive for COVID. But during that last week, we had upwards of 44 new positive cases.

PANJWANI: This isn't just a Dallas problem. In Miami, about 7% of firefighters are out sick with COVID. In Cincinnati, the mayor declared a state of emergency because of the high staff outages there. In San Diego, the number is higher. Ten percent of firefighters are out with COVID. Unlike San Diego, though, Dallas doesn't require coronavirus vaccines for its first responders. But they do require daily testing. For now, Jason Evans with the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department says they hope to follow new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

JASON EVANS: We are going to be looking into our current procedures with regard to the CDC recommendations for quarantine periods for first responders and see if we can figure out a way to make adjustments so that that time can be shorter, and we can start getting members back.

PANJWANI: So far, Dallas hasn't needed to curtail service calls because of the COVID staffing shortage, but that may become an option if officers and firefighters keep getting sick.

For NPR News, I'm Haya Panjwani.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUTCHER BROWN'S "TIDAL WAVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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