JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Firefighters are now given the addresses of people in Jacksonville who have tested positive for COVID-19 so they will know before heading out to calls if they need to use extra precautions, but this data was not available from the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
A memo sent from the city’s Information Services Division to the Duval County Health Department director and Jacksonville Fire Chief on April 2 shows city officials asked for more information to protect first responders.
The head of Jacksonville Fire Rescue said that initially, addresses of patients who either tested positive or were being monitored for COVID-19 was not provided to their agency. Fire Chief Keith Powers says addresses were needed to make sure JFRD crews were wearing the proper level of protective gear before arriving at a scene.
“As soon JFRD voiced its request for information to the Duval County Department of Health, they quickly began working with us to disseminate all the information they could legally provide,” Powers said in a statement to News4Jax. “The Duval County Department of Health began releasing this information to JFRD as soon as it was requested.”
In March, at the beginning of the pandemic, Mayor Lenny Curry said five Jacksonville firefighters were quarantined after responding to one of the first reported cases of COVID-19 in Jacksonville at a senior living facility Camellia at Deerwood where he said the first responders had “no indication that the patient was possible infected with COVID-19” and “were exposed without personal protective equipment.”
Immediately following the situation at Camellia at Deerwood, JFRD officials advised crews would respond to all calls with some level of personal protective gear.
At one point, the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Division was reporting 77 firefighters quarantined either because they made contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 without proper protective equipment or were showing symptoms of COVID-19. At least three JFRD employees have tested positive for COVID-19, according to previous reports from JFRD officials.
Forty-seven of those firefighters and paramedics were quarantined after a firefighter at Station 28 on Hogan Road tested positive in early April.
As of Monday, Powers said the agency was down to 29 firefighters still in self-quarantine and 15 were expected to return to work Tuesday.
According to the Florida Department of Health, generally when a call comes in the dispatch center inputs that address into their system and if there is a person who tested positive for COVID-19 at that address, the responders are notified.
State spokesperson wrote, “Balancing the privacy of the individuals who have tested positive and the safety of Florida’s first responders remains a priority for the state.”
According to the Florida Department of Health, law enforcement agencies and various first-responder agencies would not receive a full list and no names or other identifiable information.
The president of Jacksonville’s Association of Firefighters, Randy Wyse, says having this information is critical to his members being able to protect themselves and their families.
“Firefighters need all the information they can before or after the run – to protect our members,” said Wyse. “Beforehand – that goes without saying – wearing the proper PPE and being able to respond appropriately, but afterwards that if there was a patient that was showing no signs and symptoms that ended up becoming positive- to quickly react – ok well if this person was exposed who were they around, they went on these calls.”
Despite, initial gaps in the information given to first responders Jacksonville Fire Chief Keith Powers says the Duval County Department of Health has been “a great partner.”
“This was a new process for all of us. You know, this virus was bigger, you know something we’ve never seen before. And obviously, when you’re first starting off there’s going to be a gap between the information that we need and the information that they’re sharing,” Powers said. “The Duval County department of Health works with us hand in hand.”