Coronavirus

State Senate Bill Aims To Cover Texas First Responders Who Contract COVID-19

With COVID-19 as a presumptive disease, employers of first responders would have to prove the virus wasn’t contracted on the job in order to get out of providing coverage.
With COVID-19 as a presumptive disease, employers of first responders would have to prove the virus wasn’t contracted on the job in order to get out of providing coverage. Wiki Commons
States across the country have taken steps to ensure first responders and their families are covered if they contract COVID-19, but not Texas, despite some efforts that began as early as March.

Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas (CLEAT), said first responders in the state began urging Gov. Greg Abbott to sign an executive order that would classify the novel coronavirus as a presumptive disease.

This would qualify police officers, corrections officers, firefighters and medics who get the virus for full coverage of healthcare costs and time away from work. With COVID-19 as a presumptive disease, employers would have to prove the virus wasn’t contracted on the job in order to get out of providing coverage.

Eighteen states have gotten this done since the start of the pandemic, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Half of them did it by executive order.

“Since the start of this pandemic, far too many first responders and their families have felt the consequences of COVID-19." – stete Sen. Beverly Powell

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Abbott’s staff told KENS-5, a San Antonio-based CBS affiliate, Texas leaders were looking into this. "Obviously, we care dearly about our law enforcement, our first responders, those who are on the frontlines in all this process,” Abbott said. “So, we're looking at all the tools in the toolbox to address issues like that.”

The governor hasn’t yet been persuaded to sign such an order, and his office did not respond for comment. So state Sen. Beverly Powell of Fort Worth filed Senate Bill 107, which would do the same thing.

According to a press release from Powell’s office, the state senator and a bipartisan group of lawmakers sent a letter to Abbott urging him to make the virus presumptive, but that didn’t work either.

“Since the start of this pandemic, far too many first responders and their families have felt the consequences of COVID-19,” Powell said in the press release. “Police officers, firefighters and EMTs are the first on the scene responding to COVID-19 emergency calls and deserve to know that their families will be supported should the virus take their life.”

Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association, said he thinks it would be best if these measures were taken through Powell’s bill rather than an executive order because it would be more permanent and could later be applied to future pandemics.

Wilkison said 50 law enforcement officers have died of COVID-19. The way things are now, the families of those officers are having to prove they got the virus at work in order to receive benefits. With the magnitude of calls first responders have to answer, and how long it can take to show symptoms, this is next to impossible, Wilkison said.

The Safeguarding America’s First Responders Act was passed unanimously on the federal level in August, which offers many of the same protections, but only applies to “public safety officers,” like police or firefighters. Under the federal legislation, these officers have to have been diagnosed with the virus within 45 days of their last day on the job in order to receive benefits.

Wilkison said these protections should be given to the rest of first responders and other frontline workers, like teachers. “We’re not trying to be exclusive. We’re just trying to do the right thing for these families,” he said. “It’s impossible to describe their loss, and the public has lost something along with them.”
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn