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Upwards of two-dozen firefighters in Kirkland, Washington remained under quarantine on Thursday, with some showing “flu-like” symptoms.
Twenty-seven firefighters and three police officers in Kirkland, Washington were still in quarantine on Thursday in the wake of responding to calls at a long-term care facility that is a hotspot in the local coronavirus outbreak.
Twelve of the first responders are showing flu-like symptoms, and nineteen have confirmed direct exposure to COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, according to the city. Two others were released from quarantine after showing no symptoms.
The situation in Kirkland underscores the risks first responders can face from the virus in the course of their work—risks that local agencies are increasingly taking extra precautions to address.
Authorities have identified certain best practices. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has specific guidelines for emergency medical workers and 911 call centers that are designed to cut down the chances that first responders will be exposed to the virus.
The nation’s largest firefighters union has cataloged some related recommendations as well.
Kirkland is located just east of Seattle. Both cities are in King County, which as of Thursday had 51 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 10 deaths. The coronavirus first took hold in the U.S. in Washington state, where 70 people had been diagnosed by Thursday evening. Across the country, there were more than 200 confirmed cases.
Kristin Tinsley, a spokesperson for the Seattle Fire Department said in an email Thursday that the department had put in place a number of safeguards to protect employees from the disease. These preventative measures were enacted at the direction of the department’s medical director, Dr. Michael Sayre, and mirror the CDC guidance.
“Our firefighter/EMTs and paramedics play a key role in the response to this virus, as they respond to treat sick patients,” Tinsley noted.
When a 911 call comes in, dispatchers in Seattle begin an “early triage” process for patients who are reporting flu-like symptoms, which includes asking questions about any recent travel to areas with high numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Based on the information gathered, first responders may be advised to put on personal protective equipment, including face masks, eye protection, gloves and gowns.
At a scene where there is a suspected infected patient, there are further protocols. For example, only two crew members would initially enter the room where the patient is to assess them. They would also stay at least six feet from the patient when possible.
“The idea is to involve the fewest number of EMS personnel as necessary to assess the patient and provide medical care,” Tinsley said.
There are further guidelines in place for transporting patients who could have the illness to the hospital, and for decontaminating equipment.
First responders around the country are adopting these kinds of safety measures.
Paramedics in central Oregon are responding to certain calls wearing gear to protect them from the disease, according to The Bulletin, a newspaper in Bend. The Amarillo Fire Department, in Texas, is taking similar steps, local television news outlet KFDA reported.
Meanwhile, four firefighters in Orange County, California were recently “isolated out of an abundance of caution,” after they came into contact with a person who was suspected to have the coronavirus. They were later sent home after the patient tested negative for it.
Dr. Paul Biddinger, chief of the division of emergency preparedness at Massachusetts General Hospital, noted during an event focused on the coronavirus earlier this week that first responders can face on-the-job challenges when it comes to protecting themselves from COVID-19.
“I understand when you’re out on an ambulance how hard it is to talk about hand hygiene or protection, but it’s extremely important,” said Biddinger, who worked in emergency medical services early in his career. Hand washing and not touching one’s face are two of the most basic steps that people can take to prevent transmission of the disease.
Biddinger said that protocols for when to wear protective equipment highlight the importance of partnerships across agencies. He emphasized that the medical directors at most EMS agencies should be consulting with public health departments to settle on guidelines.
It’s not as simple as donning the protective gear for every call, because there’s a finite supply of this equipment that could become strained if the coronavirus outbreak drags on.
“If we do it too much, if we wear it for every case, we will run out,” Biddinger said. “If we don’t do it enough, we put our first responders at risk.”
Tinsley said Seattle’s fire department is currently “well stocked” with supplies like gloves, gowns, masks and safety glasses and is tracking inventory levels closely. So far, she said, there are no reports of the city’s firefighters being exposed to COVID-19.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday that the state is making immediate policy changes so that health care workers and first responders who are quarantined after getting exposed to COVID-19 on the job will be eligible for workers compensation benefits.
The benefits can cover medical treatment expenses if a worker becomes ill or injured and partial wage replacement payments for those who cannot work if they are sick or quarantined.
In spite of the policy change, the state is still encouraging employers to continue to pay any quarantined workers, in which case the workers may not need to file a workers’ compensation claim, according to the governor’s office.
“These health care workers and first responders are protecting our communities,” Inslee said in a statement. “They need to know that we have their backs. This is the right thing to do.”
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter at Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.