Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Two firefighters with Albuquerque Fire Rescue are at home and in quarantine after potentially coming into contact with novel coronavirus nine days ago.
The Bernalillo County Fire Department, meanwhile, had a tense eight hours on Tuesday after a crew member started experiencing symptoms, prompting the department to quarantine five of its firefighters inside a station. Health officials determined that the crew member didn’t have the virus, and the quarantine was lifted.
It’s the new reality first responders face these days as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps the world. In New Mexico, the Governor’s Office announced eight new cases on Friday, bringing the state’s total to 43.
Three of those new cases — a teenage girl and two men in their 40s — are from Bernalillo County. Others that tested positive include: A man in his 20s in Doña Ana County, a man in his 30s in McKinley County, a teenage girl and a man in his 80s in Sandoval County and a woman in her 70s in Taos County.
Officials say no first responders have tested positive for COVID-19 in Albuquerque or Bernalillo County, but it’s a concern that is on everybody’s mind.
“The last thing I want to hear is that my crews are contaminated,” said BCFD Deputy Chief Brian Rose in an interview Wednesday. “I’m worried about them, then I’m worried about the delivery of service to our citizens. Everything escalates and it’s a domino effect all the way down the line.”
Across the nation as cities go on lockdown, gatherings get canceled and businesses, schools and churches shutter their doors, first responders are still out there doing their jobs, going into homes and coming into close contact with people who may be infected.
Many cities now have fire crews and police officers in quarantine or who have tested positive, putting additional stress on the system. In San Jose, California, officials announced Thursday that 11 members of the city’s fire department tested positive for coronavirus and 76 others may have been exposed and are being monitored. And the Washington Post is reporting that in D.C. around 70 firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians are in self-quarantine after a potential exposure.
Both Albuquerque and Bernalillo County dispatchers have changed the way they screen 911 calls over the past several weeks. And if a patient possibly has COVID-19, firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians from both agencies suit up in a hospital gown, gloves, a mask and eye protection and ask the patient to step outside and put on a mask if they can.
During a news conference Friday, AFR Chief Paul Dow said the department has two firefighters who are in quarantine at home after coming into “high risk” contact with someone who may have COVID-19. He said it’s imperative that patients let dispatchers know if they are exhibiting symptoms.
“We do have two firefighters who on March 12 were exposed,” Dow said. “It was a high risk exposure level because of some miscommunication … It’s not that the department did anything wrong, but we have to get accurate information through our dispatch.”
BCFD Deputy Chief Rose said the county dispatch center changed its screening protocols after AFR’s firefighters were exposed.
On Feb. 3, the county dispatch center started asking anyone who called 911 because they are sick or having breathing problems if they had traveled from China — a “hot spot” — in the past 21 days, if they had contact with someone who had traveled from China in the past 21 days and if they had contact with someone who had the flu or flu-like symptoms, said Marcelino Martinez, a BCFD spokesman.
He said about a month later, more countries were added to the “hot spots” list, including Iran, Italy, Japan and South Korea.
Then, on March 16, five days after the first positive cases were announced in the state, county dispatchers began screening all medical calls and no longer asked if a person had traveled, Martinez said. Now they are just asking for symptoms or whether the patient had been in close contact with someone who had coronavirus.
He said between Monday and Thursday firefighters responded to 33 cases of “potential positives” in the county.
Both AFR and BCFD said there has not been an increase in call volume overall, although there have been more sick calls.
‘A dangerous profession’
On Tuesday, Rose said, a BCFD firefighter working out of a station northeast of the city came down with a fever. He went home, and his four crew members — plus a member of another crew who showed up for work early — were quarantined in the station for eight hours until the New Mexico Department of Health determined the symptoms were not COVID-19.
“We decided we had to quarantine the crew, too, because we do have a more elderly population in the Northeast Heights,” Rose said. “We didn’t want to risk any transmissions there so we quarantined them temporarily. Our AFR partners were able to cover that region effectively so there wasn’t any loss of service.”
Rose said the department has designated two stations to act as quarantine stations if crews are exposed.
He said the other worry is running out of personal protective equipment — masks, gowns, eye protection and gloves — as the whole country experiences a shortage. This means, his crews can’t all be wearing the disposable sets at the same time.
Plus, Rose said, he expects the area to start to see more and more cases in the next couple of weeks. He expects the agencies will adjust as time goes on and new problems or issues arise.
“It’s a dangerous profession and people die,” Rose said. “We always use a risk model and risk what we have to risk. Even in these situations we’re using that same risk model when going into a suspected COVID patient’s house.”
By the Numbers
Tested in NM