Firefighters will now wear medical gloves, masks and safety glasses when responding to medical calls, said Chief Harold Schapelhouman. Patients, he added, will be asked to meet firefighters outside if possible.
Schapelhouman said the goal is to slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep the district fully functional.
“We can’t afford to have our first responders on the sidelines while they are waiting for testing, testing results and/or to complete a mandatory 14-day quarantine, if they are symptom-free,” Schapelhouman said. “If this gets worse, which is what we are planning and preparing for, then it could become both overwhelming and unsustainable.”
Schapelhouman said firefighters so far have responded to at least a dozen suspected COVID-19 incidents.
Most recently, three firefighters treated a man who later tested positive for the deadly respiratory disease. They wore proper protective equipment, or PPE, during the call, but not safety glasses, and were “considered exposed” because their eyes could have been exposed to vaporized mist from a nebulizer the man was given to help him breathe.
Schapelhouman said the firefighters have not exhibited any symptoms but will remain in quarantine until March 28.
“That incident made us take a big step back and collectively look at what was being recommended, what we were doing, and say, ‘We can do better so that this doesn’t happen again,’” he said.
Two more firefighters were also sidelined after treating an ill man with a wife who is hospitalized with the virus, Schapelhouman said. One tested negative for COVID-19 and results are pending for the other.
Schapelhouman said a sixth firefighter self-isolated for 14 days after he was possibly exposed at a training center in San Jose, where at least 13 firefighters have tested positive.
Along with the additional safety gear, the fire district is rolling out a two-person unit to handle suspected COVID-19 incidents, Schapelhouman said. More units will be added based on demand.
“At some point, we know our firefighters will contract COVID-19,” Schapelhouman said. “Most are not in the risk categories and all are extremely healthy and fit based upon the daily expectations of our profession, but our collective goal is to delay, or stop, spread for as long as possible.”