8 Portland, Ore., FFs test positive for COVID-19; 57 others quarantined

The bureau had recorded only 10 positive cases between Feb. 28 and Nov. 17

Maxine Bernstein

PORTLAND, Ore. — Eight Portland firefighters have tested positive for the coronavirus in the past week and more than 50 other firefighters are quarantining as a result, but all stations remain open with enough firefighters to respond to emergencies, bureau officials said.

The positive tests occurred from Nov. 17 through Wednesday and mark a notable increase in infections among members of the Portland Fire & Rescue Bureau.

In March, Portland Fire & Rescue firefighters moved to the full air filter mask, as worn by the firefighter in the white suit, on medical calls when firefighters have close encounters with a potential patient. They wear the yellow suit when they suspect someone has coronavirus symptoms.
In March, Portland Fire & Rescue firefighters moved to the full air filter mask, as worn by the firefighter in the white suit, on medical calls when firefighters have close encounters with a potential patient. They wear the yellow suit when they suspect someone has coronavirus symptoms. (Photo/Portland Fire & Rescue Bureau)

Until Nov. 17, the bureau had recorded a total of only 10 positive cases since Feb. 28.

The most recent cases are spread between four different stations, with more than one firefighter testing positive in a couple of those stations, said Ryan Gillespie, division chief of emergency medical services and training. Fire officials declined to identify the stations but said they’re in more than one neighborhood.

None of the eight firefighters has required hospitalization.

The bureau is removing people who have had any exposures to those firefighters and has called in professional cleaning companies to decontaminate the stations, fire trucks and equipment, Gillespie said. Fifty-seven firefighters are currently out on quarantine.

Other firefighters are filling the shifts and all of the city’s 31 stations are up and running, he said.

The decontamination has meant each of the four affected stations has had to go out of service for between one and a half to two hours at a time, but the bureau can enlist the closest fire trucks to respond to emergencies, so no territories have been left uncovered, he said.

The bureau is doing its own contact tracing, working to determine who might have been exposed in the prior 48 hours and notifying them, Gillespie said. Contact leading to quarantine is defined as being within 6 feet of an infected firefighter for more than 15 minutes, mask or no mask.

Those on quarantine include the rest of the eight firefighters’ crews.

Fire officials don’t know the initial source of the positive tests. Firefighters work 24 hours and then are off 48 hours. Since late February, the bureau has responded to 430 patients with confirmed COVID-19, Gillespie said.

“We thoroughly understand the significance of positive COVID cases within our department,” Gillespie said Wednesday. “We understand the consequences of that, and we are doing everything we can to address that.

“Throughout this, our priority, as it always is, is to provide for the life, safety and health of the community and of our employees,’' he said.

Alan Ferschweiler, president of the Portland Fire Fighters Association, said some firefighters have been reluctant to fill shifts in the exposed stations “because they don’t want to be essentially canaries in the coal mine,” but eventually people have stepped up on overtime, he said.

“I can absolutely empathize with people’s fear,” Gillespie said. “We’re a microcosm of the greater society. Our employees have families. They have loved ones. They have people that are close to them, that are compromised or elderly. So I completely understand the concern that our employees and their family have about their loved ones coming to work and potentially being exposed to something.”

The city has offered a hotel for quarantine, but most firefighters have chosen to stay in their homes, isolated from their family members, Ferschweiler said.

City firefighters must get tested on their own. The tests are covered by their health insurance. But the bureau has obtained tests from a private lab for follow-up tests to check firefighters before they go back to work.

The bureau requires two negative tests over a 24-hour span before a firefighter can return, Gillespie said.

The bureau also is working with Multnomah County to obtain rapid antigen tests that its occupational nurse would administer to firefighters if someone starts to exhibit symptoms. That capability isn’t in place yet because bureau staff need to be certified by the state to administer those tests, Gillespie said.

The Fire & Rescue Bureau has 670 sworn firefighters, with 169 on duty each day.

“Firefighters are an essential workforce and must provide mission critical services 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” Fire Chief Sara Boone said in a statement. “Our station living and working conditions present extra challenges that every fire department across the nation are wrestling with. To keep employees and the public safe, we have adopted stringent policies and best practices.”

The bureau began conducting mandatory temperature screening for its staff March 30. Firefighters wear masks inside fire station common areas and work facilities and maintain 6-foot physical distancing in non-emergency situations when possible, according to fire officials.

Since March, Portland firefighters also began wearing full face or half-face respirators or special impermeable hazmat-type suits for all medical calls when they could be exposed to someone with coronavirus.

In related action, the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters sent a letter last week to the National Governors Association, urging that firefighters and emergency medical responders be given the highest priority for a COVID-19 vaccine, once one becomes available.

“The level of risk to responders has never been greater than it is today. More than 30,000 professional fire fighters have had known exposures to COVID-19 in the course of duty, necessitating over 17,000 such personnel to quarantine or isolate,” wrote Harold A. Schaitberger, president of the international association. “Nearly 150 professional fire fighters have been hospitalized upon contracting the virus, and at least 19 have died. All this, despite (personal protective equipment) use and rigorous decontamination procedures, makes vaccinating fire fighters and emergency medical personnel all the more urgent.”


(c)2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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