HOWELL — A shoplifter who claimed he had COVID-19 after being arrested on a shoplifting charge at a Lowe's in Howell meant four police officers had to go into quarantine for possible exposure.

Howell police said three suspects had been detained by store security for trying to steal $2,000 worth of power tools on Monday afternoon. They had also attempted to steal from other stores, according to police.

As the officers took the trio in patrol cars back to police headquarters, one of the suspects said he had tested positive for COVID-19, according to police. All three were considered by police to have been positive because of their time spent together and exposing not only the the four responding officers but also the Lowe's workers.

Police said the three were not wearing masks while they were at Lowe's. The age, identity and gender of the suspects was not revealed by police because of health confidentiality laws, according to police.

“This is another example why it is so important to abide by the 'Stay at Home’ order. If you need to go out, wear some sort of approved respiratory mask or facial covering. There are some out there like these three who don’t care about how their conduct affects you. Even if it results in you becoming seriously ill," police Chief Andrew Kudrick said.

The three were charged with third-degree theft.

The four officers have been placed on administrative leave and must quarantine while awaiting test results. Their absence comes at a time when police ranks are stretched thin by officers who have tested positive for COVID-19.

State police Superintendent Patrick Callahan said at Tuesday's daily COVID-19 briefing that 562 police officers had tested positive for the virus and 2,941 are self quarantined as of Tuesday morning. 111 will return to work on Wednesday, according to Callahan.

The penalty for anyone who threatens an officer with the virus was upped to making a terroristic threat, which is a second-degree crime with a potential jail sentence of five to 10 years because of Gov. Phil Murphy's emergency orders.

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