Each day, hundreds of emergency medical responders and fire and police officers risk exposure to COVID-19 while answering calls for help.
Despite the higher risk, the number of positive COVID-19 tests and possible exposures remains relatively low among first responders in Linn and Johnson counties — largely because they are using personal protective equipment and following safety protocols, according to a Gazette survey of Corridor departments.
In the early days of the pandemic, the Corridor saw a handful of positive cases among first responders — mostly among those working in law enforcement. Those numbers have not changed, though the risk of possible exposure remains high.
In Cedar Rapids, two police officers had tested positive for COVID-19 as of mid-June. As many as 95 officers have been exposed, public safety spokesperson Greg Buelow said.
No Cedar Rapids firefighters have tested positive, Buelow added, but approximately 70 have been exposed — some of them multiple times.
“Firefighters have been dispatched to 498 calls with alerts for potential COVID and, of those, 310 patients did screen positive for the virus” between March 8 and June 25, he said.
Exposures is defined as contact with “someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, was symptomatic of COVID-19 or someone who was later determined to have tested positive for COVID-19.”
In the Linn County Sheriff’s Office, two deputies — both of whom worked in the jail — tested positive in April, according to Sheriff Brian Gardner. No deputies have tested positive since, he said.
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The sheriff said that “in the strictest terms of ‘exposure’ ” — standing closer than 6 feet to a person with COVID-19 for more than two minutes — those officers may have exposed roughly 20 employees to the virus before they were sent home, but none of their co-workers tested positive.
Gardner estimated an additional two deputies might have been exposed to the virus while on the job.
“Anyone who thought that they may have been exposed was required to self-isolate and follow the CDC’s and Linn County Department of Public Health Department’s guidelines for returning to work,” he said. “We also had a few employees who thought that they might have been exposed outside of work-related activities. They also self-isolated with no confirmed cases.”
In Marion, no police officers have tested positive, and none have been exposed to the virus, spokesperson Tom Daub said.
In addition to wearing personal protective equipment, Daubs said Marion police are avoiding going into houses or entering tight spaces whenever possible. They wipe down their squad cars each time someone is put into the back seat, as well as at the end of each shift.
Additionally, Daubs said the police department is limiting officer response “on medical calls to those requiring emergency treatment (trauma, heart attack, etc.).” Officers are not responding when a caller is simply “feeling ill and needs paramedics or an ambulance ride to the hospital,” he said.
The Area Ambulance Service in Cedar Rapids did not respond to a request for information on its personnel.
In Iowa City, no police officers have tested positive, police spokesman Derek Frank said. he was unable to give a number of potential exposures.
The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office also reported zero positive tests.
At the Iowa City Fire Department, one firefighter tested positive for the virus, but the department’s exposures have been extensive, Deputy Chief Eric Nurnberg said.
“We take many precautions, however, to prevent that contact from becoming exposure to the virus.
“Firefighters and medics routinely come within 6 feet of patients who are either suspected or confirmed to be positive for COVID-19, but our dispatching process, infection control and patient care protocols, and our use of personal protective equipment have all proven to help protect our members against exposure,” Nurnberg said.
Mitigation and prevention practices include regular cleaning of frequently touched surfaces, social distancing or wearing masks and other protective gear when required to be in close quarters, daily temperature taking and disinfecting equipment, he said.
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Each emergency agency reported similar protocols should an employee test positive or show symptoms of COVID-19. Those employees are required to stay home and self-isolate until they have gone without a fever for 72 hours straight or have been cleared by a medical professional to return to work.
Should an employee develop symptoms while at work, they are sent home immediately.
Each agency has provided its employees with personal protective and sanitizing equipment and protocols to avoid infection, in accordance with guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Iowa Department of Public Health.
But, as a first responder, risking exposure to contagious illnesses has always been a part of the job, Nurnberg said,
“For decades, emergency response agencies have risked their safety to help their communities,” he said. “And for decades, we’ve been accustomed to using infection control techniques and PPE on every medical call.”
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