First responders under strain due to lack of protective equipment, coronavirus test

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON — A lack of protective equipment combined with a lack of testing for the coronavirus is putting a huge strain on those first responders who are on the frontlines of helping pick up sick patients from their homes or off the street, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters said.

“We’re running out of N95 masks, gowns and face shields, eye protection. You have to have all three, plus your gloves on,” Pat Morrison, the IAFF’s assistant general president for health, safety and medicine, told Yahoo News on Monday. 

“We’re not in a controlled environment. We’re showing up on different calls and not knowing whether a patient is positive for COVID-19 or not. So we have to treat a lot of calls as if they are.”

A large number of emergency medical technicians are drawn from the ranks of firefighters. These ambulance personnel who respond to 911 calls are reusing equipment in the same way that some hospital workers do. And some are resorting to using makeshift face masks, such as bandannas, Morrison said.

“That’s pretty desperate, when you’re going to a bandanna or thinking about it,” he said.

A firefighter in Kirkland, Wash., the epicenter of one of the biggest coronavirus outbreaks in the U.S. (Jason Redmond/Reuters)

The lack of equipment is compounded by the fact that even first responders, who are vital to America’s response to the pandemic, cannot get access to coronavirus testing.

“Nobody has a good number of how many firefighters are positive,” Morrison said. “We’ve been told since the first week of March that testing would be up and it would be more robust and anybody could get tested, and we have not been able to get our members tested.”

Nationally, there are 1,800 firefighters who have been quarantined or are currently in isolation. And there are “close to 100” firefighters who have tested positive for the virus, Morrison said. 

But that number barely scratches the surface, he said. “We know that number is higher. We just don’t have a way of getting testing to screen those firefighters who have been responding to positive COVID-19 patients.”

Morrison said increased access to testing is crucial for first responders. As it stands now, firefighters and EMTs who carry the virus but may be asymptomatic can spread it to other emergency personnel, and even to patients, without knowing it.

“A rapid test would be a game changer for us,” Morrison said.

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