Ind. city responds to fire union's claim that lack of quarantine led to virus outbreak

East Chicago firefighters alleged that the first department member to test positive had been told to keep working despite being exposed through a household member


By Lauren Cross
The Times, Munster, Ind.

EAST CHICAGO, Ind. — Fire union leaders are warning of an "outbreak" of COVID-19 cases at Station 4 that could expose the public.

In a news release, Angel Gilarski, union secretary for the East Chicago Fire Department, pinned the extent of the outbreak on the fire department administration for allegedly not quarantining the first Station 4 firefighter known to have been exposed by someone in his household.

East Chicago's firefighters' union claims that the department's failure to quarantine a member who was exposed to COVID-19 through his household led to an outbreak of the virus among firefighters. City officials responded, saying the city has been in full compliance with CDC guidelines and provided sufficient supplies to reduce firefighters' risk. (Photo/East Chicago Professional Firefighters Local 365 Facebook)
East Chicago's firefighters' union claims that the department's failure to quarantine a member who was exposed to COVID-19 through his household led to an outbreak of the virus among firefighters. City officials responded, saying the city has been in full compliance with CDC guidelines and provided sufficient supplies to reduce firefighters' risk. (Photo/East Chicago Professional Firefighters Local 365 Facebook)

She claimed the administration told the firefighter to continue working and instead wear a mask and segregate from the rest of the crew.

The union said the firefighter informed the administration on Sept. 29 that a member of his household was positive for the coronavirus, Gilarski said. The firefighter subsequently exhibited symptoms and tested positive.

To date, four firefighters have tested positive, Gilarski said. Others have symptoms but are still awaiting results. Some are still waiting for results from Oct. 2, Gilarski said.

City Attorney Carla Morgan said the city of East Chicago's practices are keeping up with CDC guidelines, which allows firefighters with exposure to return to work once they get tested -- while wearing a mask at all times.

Full compliance with the CDC and city mandate to wear N-95 masks should have prevented transmission among fire union members, Morgan said.

She said the city also is investigating how the transmissions among the department occurred if there was "indeed full compliance" with mask wearing, social distancing and sanitization.

"The (city) has supplied all first responders with N-95 masks, which as you know, are the most protective PPE available. They are all also issued gloves, sanitizer and sanitary wipes and ordered to use them to keep their work areas and vehicles clean and sanitary, and to social distance while in the workplace, and when on calls to social distance as much as is practical.

"They are also ordered to put on additional PPE including gloves when coming into to contact with the public. Firefighters have also been issued gowns and goggles. These supplies are regularly all replenished, and replacements are readily available to all first responders," Morgan said.

She said that while the local union may take issue with the CDC guidelines, "that is a national and not merely a local issue."

"We would also ask the union's cooperation in ensuring that their membership give notice to their supervisors and not report to work if sick or suffering any symptoms, and immediately get tested," she said.

The union also claimed there has been "ineffective contact tracing" and inadequate notification to exposed firefighters or to the public who have had direct contact with the COVID-19-positive firefighters. Test results have taken more than 10 days for some firefighters, and they continue to work while awaiting the results, the union claimed.

Morgan said all city testing is being conducted by or in conjunction with the state health department, and contact tracing is being conducted with ISDH and the East Chicago Health Department. She said the city is investigating the sudden delay in returned results since the start of the month.

"While test results had been coming back the same day or the next day after the test was conducted, with 72 hours being the maximum response time, we are seeking an explanation why the time for test results to come in has skyrocketed since Oct. 1," Morgan said.

The fire department administration also is still having group training exercises and are not limiting the movement of firefighters to prevent further spread, the union claimed.

"The city takes COVID-19 very seriously," Morgan said. "Employees have been disciplined for not complying with mask wearing and social distancing mandates. We are extremely concerned for every first responder and every resident who has tested positive or suffered with a COVID-19 infection. We have taken every precaution recommended by the CDC, but must rely on each first responder to fully comply with the mask mandate in order to protect themselves and the public from transmission."

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(c)2020 The Times (Munster, Ind.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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