Two dozen firefighters, paramedics and police officers are getting back to work this week after a second COVID-19 scare ripped through Akron’s public safety forces.
Not since an outbreak in April have so many first responders, most of them in the fire department, been asked to step away from the job until they recover from COVID-19 or are cleared of ever having the respiratory illness following a quarantine period.
The city reported to the Beacon Journal that, out of the 375 personnel in the fire department and 485 on the police force, 44 were out at one point this month. They either exhibited symptoms or came too close for too long to a colleague or citizen who tested positive for the disease.
By the end of the week, 21 remained out. That's significantly higher than the average of one or two off the job each week this summer.
Keeping the virus from crippling emergency services is mission critical for cities and their safety forces. City administrators and the unions representing Akron’s safety forces stressed that the use of overtime and dedication have kept 911 response times from slipping.
“We still go out. We still respond to calls. We never brush one off,” said Kevin Gostkowski, president of the Local 330 fire union in Akron.
The union president added that some firehouse shifts get "short-staffed," but crews so far have been able to answer every alarm.
"I want to emphasize that COVID-related absences have not resulted in any decrease in the level of coverage or service APD or AFD provides in our community," said Ellen Lander Nischt, press secretary to the mayor. "We have always covered absences with overtime as needed."
But the overtime, which is covered for now by federal coronavirus relief funding, is not cheap. Nor is routinely cleaning fire trucks, ambulance, cruisers and police and fire stations. Safety forces get temperature checks each shift and mask up, even when waiting with a co-worker to respond to a call.
The city is regularly applying for reimbursement through the federal CARES Act for the extra cost while seeking grants, like a $52,000 award secured by fire administrators to get N95 masks.
So far, an adequate supply of personal protective equipment and enhanced safety protocols have kept Akron from suffering severe outbreaks that have affected operational capacity in other American cities.
Earlier this month, Mansfield's 90-member fire department was reduced by 11, virtually overnight. The 12% decline in available staff came after two firefighters tested positive while out of state on a hunting trip then two more showed symptoms on the job and the rest were sent home to quarantine.
Gostkowski said “the biggest problem” in Akron is members coming to work when they should stay home. That could be the case in any workplace, added Lt. Sierjie Lash, the public information officer for Akron fire.
What makes safety forces more susceptible to contact with COVID-19 is their age and the nature of their job, officials said.
“A lot of our firefighters are between 21 and 40 something,” Lash said of a younger age range that’s more likely to be asymptomatic. Like other younger people, they run a higher risk of bringing the disease home.
“If they’re feeling good and nothing is closed to them, they’re socializing. On their days off, especially as first responders, you may not know what you came into contact with on your workday so be cognizant of what you do in your time off,” said Lash.
Daily they're told to "be aware and hyper vigilant," said Lash.
Paramedics routinely give patients with COVID-19 symptoms an ambulance ride to the hospital. Once there, the patient is tested. If positive, a contact tracer with Summit County Public Health asks the first responders if they were wearing the right equipment and how long they were near the patient.
Only in cases where contamination was likely are the safety forces told to quarantine.
“We have some issues with guys who have tested positive who don’t want to go home,” said Gostkowski. “The hotels don’t want to take positive cases.”
The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) helps defray the cost for members who find a hotel to take them in. Most find a corner of their home, maybe a basement, where they can steer clear of their family for a couple weeks, Gostkowski said.
The union president praised Mayor Dan Horrigan for the extra financial support because of COVID-19. Federal stimulus money, by law, does not have to cover the lost wages. In some cities, first responders are forced to burn their paid time off, said Doug Stern, director of media relations for the IAFF.
“They shouldn’t have to burn their own personal time because of an on-the-job exposure,” said Stern, who's lobbying the Department of Health and Human Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prioritize first responders for relief. The Heroes Act, which has passed the U.S. House but stalled in the Senate. The bill would mandate paid leave for first responders, who sometimes have to quarantine multiple times.
The IAFF tracks COVID-19 among its members. But the data are self-reported. The Local 330 in Akron, for example, hasn’t sent in updated figures since the end of March.
Nationally, Stern said tens of thousands of firefighters have been forced to quarantine, with 2,700 of his members testing positive and 17 who have died of COVID-19.
In Akron, cases among firefighters have been pretty mild, Goskowski said. One guy was hospitalized but later returned to work. And, so far, a provision of the CARES Act that covers 80 hours of lost wages has kept the city and its safety forces from suffering steep financial losses.
“Now, we haven’t had anyone who needs to be quarantined a second time,” said Goskowski, “so we don’t know what happens when they run out of their 80 hours.”