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Coronavirus: Seattle's First Responders


Back here in Washington state, some firefighters are under quarantine after caring for residents at the nursing home near Seattle where many coronavirus cases were confirmed. Will Stone of member station KNKX has this report.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: The spread of coronavirus has first responders in Washington revisiting their infectious disease protocols.

JEFF COLLINS: We got this N95 mask, so I'll put that over my mouth.

STONE: Firefighter Jeff Collins is getting a lot of practice with gloves, gowns and goggles.

COLLINS: So my face is protected from the mucous membrane exposure.

STONE: Collins works for East Pierce Fire and Rescue, which serves a stretch of suburban and rural Washington 30 miles south of Seattle.

COLLINS: Our plan is right now for - to limit the amount of people that go into the incident. And if we have a high index of suspicion, everyone inside will be wearing these gowns.

STONE: Fire crews are being directed to initially wait outside when a call sounds like it involves coronavirus. That way, only a few medics have to suit up. East Pierce assistant chief Russ McCallion says 911 dispatchers are now asking more detailed follow-up questions to screen for possible cases.

RUSS MCCALLION: One of the confounding issues for our responders is that flu symptoms and COVID-19 symptoms are very similar.

STONE: That makes his job all the more complex. Increasingly, they will have to assume coronavirus, or COVID-19, until proven otherwise. He says they have enough staff to handle these calls for now.

MCCALLION: But I think that if calls go up exponentially, then I think you'll see more pressure in the health care system to treat and leave at home for people to self-monitor their conditions.

STONE: McCallion has come up with a checklist of new precautions for his first responders to follow. And his department is stocking up on sanitizer and taking more aggressive measures to disinfect ambulances. They have enough personal protective equipment to last for about 45 days. But McCallion says others in Washington are more strained.

MCCALLION: We've had physicians in other neighboring agencies ask for additional equipment.

STONE: A big concern is what happened to firefighters in Kirkland. Many are now in quarantine after responding to calls at a nearby nursing home called Life Care Center, where a number of residents have fallen ill and some have even died. Evan Hurley with the Kirkland Fire Department says before the outbreak, it was a place his crew knew well.

EVAN HURLEY: It's not unusual for us to respond there on a regular basis to transport because they deal with such sick patients.

STONE: And Hurley says that's exactly what they were doing in the days before coronavirus was detected there, responding to all manner of calls - situations like a nosebleed - without them realizing the risk.

HURLEY: Well, a nosebleed doesn't require us to be in the same level of protection as, say, somebody who might have ongoing flu symptoms.

STONE: Only after the fact did he and his crew learn some of them could have been exposed to the coronavirus.

HURLEY: It was hard to have been set up for success there, and nobody did anything wrong.

STONE: Hurley is in quarantine and continues transporting patients from the nursing home to the hospital. Meanwhile, his crew members wait in isolation. Some concern they could have exposed family members who may be at risk.

Dennis Lawson is president of the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters, which represents 9,000 first responders.

DENNIS LAWSON: Believe me, we're learning things. Not everything has been perfect.

STONE: Lawson says all the steps they're now taking, from better screening of suspected cases to more communication between ambulances and hospitals, will keep first responders safer.

LAWSON: Provide the service to the community. And then you're hoping - I mean, you're really hoping you've done everything you could throughout that shift to leave everything behind so when you go home to your families, you're not taking anything back there to them.

STONE: This heightened awareness is becoming the norm for people on the frontlines of health care. For NPR News, I'm Will Stone in Seattle.

MARTIN: This story is part of NPR's reporting partnership with Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.