COVID-19: What the San Jose Fire Department outbreak means for first responders

As many as 80 firefighters have been self-quarantined in the last few weeks — more than 10% of the department


San Jose firefighters try to control the flames at a home in Hidden Valley. Image: Brian van der Brug

Los Angeles Times
By Richard Winton

When it comes to the front line for the coronavirus, the San Jose firefighters are experiencing what officials fear will become a common problem among first responders.

So far, 10 firefighters have tested positive for COVID-19 and 50 others are in self-isolation.

There have been a scattering of other cases of first responders testing positive, including a Los Angeles Police Department officer and an L.A. firefighter.

The number of San Jose firefighters with the disease caused by the coronavirus grew this week from four to 10 and scores have been quarantined, according to the San Jose firefighters union. As the virus sweeps across the Silicon Valley, firefighters are treating every call as though it is a COVID-19 call, firefighters union leaders say.

Our members are assuming on all their calls the person is positive. One person is entering in full mask, goggles and gown to determine the patient’s condition. Others are only going in where necessary,” said Sean Lovens, spokesman for San Jose Fire Fighters, IAFF Local 230. “Afterward the firefighters are decontaminating themselves, their apparatus.”

The change in response comes as the department saw the number of firefighters infected swell among the ranks of 664 line firefighters.

“We have one firefighter receiving treatment in the hospital. They have mild to more significant pneumonia but all are expected to make a full recovery,” Lovens said. He said speculation and rumors of a firefighter in grave life-threatening condition is false.

Across Santa Clara County, five people have died and 155 have tested positive. In response, health officials have declared a state of emergency and imposed a shelter-in-place order. Officials hope those actions will help to stem the spread of the highly infectious virus.

San Jose officials confirmed 10 firefighters have tested positive, while an additional 57 have been in contact with people confirmed to have the illness, and are being monitored. Those numbers have not increased since Tuesday evening.

As many as 80 firefighters at one time or another in the last few weeks have been self-quarantined — more than 10% of the department.

About 30 of those firefighters have returned to their fire stations to work. Typically, San Jose firefighters will answer more than 90,000 calls in a year.

The illnesses and quarantines have taken a toll on the families of first responders, officials say.

Our sick firefighters also have multiple family members who have tested COVID-19 positive, and other family members with symptoms of the virus awaiting test results,” Lovens said.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said Tuesday, “the reality is there’s no simple fix.” The mayor has already set aside additional budget funds to deal with the virus.

Despite the challenges, firefighters across the city continue to roll on call after call.

“As firefighters, we commit our careers and lives to serving the public in their time of need,” said Sean Kaldor, president of the San Jose Fire Fighters, IAFF Local 230. “Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic as it grows among our residents is an unprecedented challenge, and we are up to that challenge. But it is also taking a tremendous toll on us as we fall ill and support our ill family members.”

The union and fire department are following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to limit exposure and manage firefighters who have been exposed. City officials say that fire stations have been disinfected and that the cleaning of trucks and other fire apparatus is at an all-time high.

In the event that a firefighter is known to have been exposed to COVID-19, that firefighter is removed from serving the public for 14 days as their condition is actively monitored.

In cases where a station is suspected of being contaminated, firefighters are relocated and the station receives a deeper level of cleaning and disinfecting.

(c)2020 the Los Angeles Times