The local police union on Wednesday issued a call for local retailers and individuals to consider selling or donating hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, disinfectant wipes, and other materials to protect first responders and the community from the coronavirus.

Mike Helle, president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, said he was concerned about the effectiveness and volume of products supplied by the City of San Antonio’s Police Department. Helle asked that anyone with an extra stock of these items in their stores, warehouses, or homes contact him directly at 210-822-4428. Grocery stores and suppliers across Bexar County and the U.S. have been struggling to keep hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes on the shelves for weeks.

“It’s not about who gets the credit [or the blame for this supply shortage],” Helle told the Rivard Report. “We’re just asking for help. … I’ll go out to anybody who’s going to give it to us.”

The hand sanitizer – some of it already opened – distributed to SAPD substations this week expired in 2011, and there weren’t enough face masks to go around, Helle said, adding that the sanitizer might be leftover from the Hurricane Katrina response.

“I was not aware of this,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said via text. “We are going to make sure that our first responders have what they need particularly during this emergency.”

More supplies are on the way, according to a statement from SAPD’s public information office.

“The CDC recommends washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds to minimize the risk of spreading illness,” SAPD stated. “This is the primary practice encouraged for SAPD officers.”

Hand sanitizer starts to lose its effectiveness once it’s opened as the alcohol evaporates. But unopened bottles can still be effective years after their expiration date, typically three years after they’re manufactured.

“The unopened expired hand sanitizer that was distributed is still an effective method to sanitize hands and was approved for distribution by the CDC,” the department’s response continued. “In the coming days, all substations will receive an additional supply of hand sanitizer and other protective gear to ensure officers have adequate protection. … Although we are taking extra precautions with COVID-19, our policies and training are in line with best practices. Simply put, the City has always provided the department with the necessary resources to safely do our job.”

Helle said the City needs to do a better job making sure that civilian and uniformed employees in SAPD practice social distancing (maintaining a six-foot buffer with others) and disinfecting work stations and patrol vehicles.

He doesn’t want SAPD to follow in New York Police Department’s footsteps, he said. Seventeen NYPD police officers were sent home and one tested positive for the virus.

For now, it’s up to employees to find disinfectant wipes and extra gloves, he said.

SAPD indicated in its response that the department still has free gloves in stock and all officers have access to personal protective equipment gear (PPE) such as gas masks and full-body suits.

PPE gear should be reserved for dealing with deadly chemical spills or weapons, Helle said. If police officers start wearing full-body suits and gas masks, it would “start freaking people out.”

San Antonio Fire Department and the fire union did not immediately respond to a request for comment if they were experiencing similar issues. The City’s relationship with the police and fire unions have been strained in recent years, stemming from deep-seated disagreements on health care and wages in their respective labor contracts.

“I’ve been patient and not to try to get in front of the chief or the mayor or anybody else [about supplies] … we’re here to support the team,” Helle said.

But when the City’s supplies were distributed to the stations last night, he said he wanted to “clear out the red tape and bureaucracy” to get police officers the supplies they needed.

Helle has already been in touch with one national supplier that has a local office here, he said.


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Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com