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Coronavirus Florida: First responders take more steps to stay safe as cases surge

Hannah Winston
hwinston@pbpost.com
Palm Beach Post

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As the number of coronavirus cases across Palm Beach County and the nation continue to climb, fire departments across the county are dealing with positive tests within their own staffs and taking more restrictive measures to make sure their frontline workers remain healthy.

Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Chief Reginald Duren told county commissioners Tuesday about the challenges his first responders have been met with and precautions they have taken to do their jobs and remain safe, with no end to the virus in sight.

Duren said, “by all indications, things are not getting better. They’re not getting steady. They seem to be getting worse at this time.”

More than 230,000 people have tested positive for the virus in Florida and more than 4,000 have died, after the state broke a one-day record for deaths with 120 on Thursday. In Palm Beach County, there were 578 deaths and more than 18,000 positive cases of COVID-19, the illness that the virus causes.

“Emotionally it’s very difficult to deal with knowing the potential that exists,” Duren said. “You see the impacts of this disease and the far ranges of the extreme, which you can be harmed by it. But in many cases, it’s just the unknown.”

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At the beginning of the year, just as tests were becoming available in the United States, Delray Beach Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Greg Giaccone said his department’s biggest challenge was the lack of personal protective equipment.

In the beginning, “a lot of those people being transported that didn’t seem to be COVID-positive, (we later learned) were positive,” he said.

As time went on, the department got its hands on more PPE, but cases began surging again, so Delray Beach increased its safety measures. Now, no matter the call, first responders must wear the minimum of masks, goggles and gloves, Giaccone said.

Concerns about staffing

As of this week, Palm Beach County Fire Rescue had 109 of their 1,360 first responders either in preventive quarantine or diagnosed with the virus. Since March, they’ve had 36 staffers test positive. As of Tuesday, 24 had the virus and two remained in intensive care, according to Duren.

After Duren spoke with the commissioners, Commissioner Melissa McKinlay noted that it was about 10 percent of his first responders who were out because of the virus.

“I hope the public will hear this story that there are 109 of your men and women who are in quarantine right now that have had possible exposure who have their own families to go home to at night. (...) They’re putting their lives on the line to keep us safe,” she said. “The least we can do is be respectful and follow the guidelines.”

Duren said there was concern about smaller departments and the possibility of losing staff if the spread continues.

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In West Palm Beach, there has been one recorded case of the virus in its department of 230 since March. In Delray Beach, eight of its 161 first responders have tested positive for the coronavirus in the same time period.

As of Wednesday, six in West Palm Beach are on preventative quarantine. There are seven out in Delray Beach, with one positive case and six waiting for test results.

At one point, Giaccone said his department had 15 staffers out out on preventative quarantine. He said the department was able to compensate for its losses with overtime for healthy workers, but it has put more measures in place to help mitigate a wider spread.

He said it was able to go more than a month without any positive cases, and appeared to have a handle of the situation ahead of it. But, when Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed South Florida to reopen in May, the department was hit again, Giaccone said.

Duren said his department’s 109 members in quarantine is the highest it has been since it began facing the virus.

“It cannot be stated strongly enough that we have to some ways to go until a resolution of this virus,” Duren said Tuesday.

Changes to gear, practices

Giaccone said Delray Beach stepped up more precautions within the department, including mandatory masks around the station and more cleaning, as well as changing the way they have meals together.

Usually, dinner would be a big social gathering at each station. Now, they’re limiting eating to units only, which usually consist of three people.

When first responders are out on calls now and have a confirmed cases of coronavirus, he said they suit up fully with gowns, and at least one person, usually the one handling the patient, will wear a powered air-purifying respirator.

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The battery-powered device uses a blower that pulls air through an attached filter or cartridge that covers the entire head and neck of the individual wearing it, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“And that’s three or four calls (a day),” Giaccone said. “But now we’re treating every call like it’s COVID.”

Duren said even with extra decontamination, wearing more masks within their department and other preventative measures in place, his crews only can control what they themselves are doing to mitigate the spread.

“We don’t know to what extent our workforce will be impacted. We’re taking significant measures to decrease that while our employees are at work, and we certainly give them a significant amount of training and resources,” he said Tuesday.

“But it’s a community effort as well.”

hwinston@pbpost.com

@hannahwinston

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