JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – First responders everywhere are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. Many are getting sick.
Nationally, more than 800 members of fire unions have tested positive for the new coronavirus. Thousands are in quarantine.
In Jacksonville, 14 firefighters are in quarantine as a precaution, however, Fire Chief Keith Powers said Tuesday afternoon that no one in the department had tested positive for the virus. Many are awaiting test results.
Numbers from the city show the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department transported 58 patients who were showing symptoms of the virus in the past week. From March 13 to April 6, the agency transported 205 patients who were showing symptoms.
“We will always respond, and we will adapt,” said Robin Gainey, district chief of JFRD.
He acknowledged that the men and women on the front lines are at an increased risk.
“If they are COVID positive or COVID potential, then we restrict the number of personnel to one if at all possible, then we have one person interact with that patient from time we contact them to the time we hand them off to the ER or hospital,” Gainey said.
Every team has protective equipment: Masks, gloves and gowns -- not just for the firefighters, but the patients too.
“Every patient gets a mask, whether it is a fingernail to a head injury,” said Raymond Worth Jr., a JFRD engineer. “Everybody gets a mask.”
As each patient leaves the ambulance and gets transferred into a hospital, JFRD sends a special cleaning crew to disinfect the rescue unit from top to bottom. They use a fogging device called an AeroClave.
Jacksonville fire stations are no longer accepting walk-in patients, and dispatchers, with the help of the Florida Department of Health, are flagging addresses where someone has tested positive so that first responders know what they’re heading into.
According to the International Association of Firefighters, more than 9,000 members of fire departments nationwide have report being exposed.
Of those, 3,000 were in isolation and 827 have tested positive. Union representatives said not all members had reported.
In Jacksonville, 49 fire union members were exposed, with 44 isolated and no confirmed cases.
Statewide, 19 members in Florida reported they had confirmed cases. The most were in South Florida, near Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
“We are doing the best we can to make sure our members are protected, but sometimes people don’t know,” said Randy Wyse, president of the Jacksonville Fire Union. “What the citizens can do is communicate with the dispatchers when firefighters get there, tell them exactly what’s going on, what they’re feeling.”
The current situation is trying for residents and first responders alike, but the goal is to stay positive and remain COVID-19 negative.