CHARLESTOWN — Four members of the Charlestown Police Department have been placed on sick leave after testing positive for COVID-19, leading officials to implement enhanced testing for the department and town staff.
Charlestown Police Chief Michael Paliotta and Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz confirmed Monday that four police employees, all officers assigned to the patrol division, have tested positive for COVID-19. The first case was confirmed in a test taken on July 4, with two others testing positive later in the week and a fourth case confirmed in results that were returned Monday morning.
"The findings are a result of tests performed when an officer developed a fever and symptoms consistent with coronavirus near the end of the officer's shift on July 3," Paliotta said. "That officer called in sick from work on July 4 and was advised at that time to get tested."
A volunteer with the Charlestown Ambulance Rescue Service has also tested positive in June. The volunteer followed all Rhode Island Department of Health and CDC guidelines during recovery and has since returned to work. Officials said a town employee had also tested positive two months ago, but showed no symptoms and further testing led officials to believe the first test returned a false positive.
No other cases involving first responders or town employees have been reported. The names and ages of those impacted have not been released.
After learning that an officer tested positive, Stankiewicz said officials notified the Department of Health. He said any coworkers who had been in contact with the officer were notified and tested, and the state has assigned a nurse to monitor the situation in hopes of hindering further transmission of the disease.
Stankiewicz said that all four remain on leave at this time and will continue to be out until they meet state requirements and guidelines, which includes being asymptomatic for at least one week and returning negative results in two consecutive tests taken at least 24 hours apart.
There is no timetable for their return, he said.
Both Paliotta and Stankiewicz said they could not comment on the origins of the first officer's case, but noted that the state has conducted contract tracing for those impacted. Families and friends of those impacted have also been notified, Stankiewicz said.
"We can determine where it might have began, but it's all speculation because of the 14-day gestation period," Stankiewicz said. "Knowing where it comes from is one thing, proving it is another."
The sudden rise in positive cases provides a challenge for the small-town police department, which is now missing 20% of its force as a result of the positive tests. The agency has just 20 sworn officers, including Paliotta, and he said the department has had to supplement shifts using its overtime budget.
Paliotta was adamant that the issue has not impacted the agency's ability to respond to calls or patrol-shift staffing. He admitted that it could, however, if cases surge.
"We will continue to adjust as needed and would consider scheduling changes such as implementing a 12-hour shift," Paliotta said. "We've had very good cooperation from staff. They've been reminded how important it is not to come to work if they are feeling ill and reminded to notify me of any plans to travel, especially if it's to an area that may be considered a hot spot."
The department has also implemented other efforts to prevent spread of the disease, including eliminating roll call, staggering locker-room presence and changing at home, using separate equipment, and cleaning thoroughly before and after shifts.
Since the first test, Stankiewicz said the department and Charlestown Town Hall have both been disinfected and cleaned using professional crews with Trauma Services LLC, a bioremediation company based in Mansfield, Mass. Town janitorial staff have also continued to disinfect highly trafficked areas of both the police department and town hall frequently.
A partnership with Charlestown Ambulance Rescue Service, which has staff, including Ambulance Chief Andrew Kettle, trained to conduct COVID-19 testing, has also allowed the town to stay ahead of testing needs and remain knowledgeable about when and where cases may be coming from.
The officers were not believed to have had any contact with other town staff, Stankiewicz said, but the community provided free testing as a precautionary measure last week for all Charlestown employees. A total of 56 staff members were tested on Friday in the Charlestown Police Department parking lot.
Results of those tests have not yet been returned. Most test results are typically returned in two to four days.
Stankiewicz said the town will also continue to work with Kettle and conduct further testing on two-day cycles as necessary to assure the safety of all first responders and town employees. For now, however, both he and Paliotta said they are confident that things are under control.
"These four members do work together and had overlapped on shifts as well as equipment use," Paliotta said. "We have no reason to believe anyone else was impacted."