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Providence firefighters respond to spike in calls possibly related to COVID-19


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence firefighters are responding to more calls every day for people with symptoms of COVID-19, according to the union president.

Derek Silva, the president of the Providence Firefighters Union Local 799, said the Providence Fire Department responded to 17 calls between 8 a.m. Tuesday and 8 a.m. Wednesday that were related to COVID-19. He called it a “dramatic uptick” from the previous few days, which saw between five and eight calls.

Silva said calls for medical help are categorized as possibly related to COVID-19 if a person has flu-like symptoms and also another factor, such as recent travel or contact with a person who has the virus. He said some emergency calls come in for a person with chest pain, and paramedics who arrive discover the patient has also had a cough, travel or other factor that makes it a possible COVID-19 case.

He added that total calls for service have decreased, with fewer people out driving or in the community.

The Providence Fire Department has designated a single ambulance — Rescue 5 — to respond to calls where the person might have COVID-19, in an effort to contain the spread of the virus among firefighters.

Two firefighters at a time are manning Rescue 5, with ten total people in the rotation at the Reservoir Avenue fire station. Fire Engine 11 — which is normally located at that station — has been moved to the Broad Street station in order to decrease the number of firefighters interacting with those running Rescue 5, Silva said.

“We actually asked for volunteers and we got all 10 to volunteer to be assigned to it,” Silva said of the COVID-19 team.

Eight firefighters are currently quarantining for a variety of reasons including recent travel and illness, Silva said. Two firefighters who have symptoms have been tested for the disease, and are awaiting results. Silva said it is believed that the firefighters were exposed while on medical calls, before the department set up the special ambulance just for COVID-19 calls.

Silva praised the department’s handling of the crisis so far, which he said includes plenty of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves and masks.

“It seems like we’re ahead of the curve in terms of how we’re managing it,” Silva said.

He said the only item they have run out of so far are the disposable caps that go on in-ear thermometers in between uses, so they have been using saran wrap and plastic bags to protect the thermometers instead.

First responders, along with health care workers, are among the frontline workers most vulnerable to the virus because of their daily interactions with members of the public.

Providence is working on setting up a facility for police officers and firefighters to quarantine in case they need to do so away from their families. Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré said an interim space has been found, and the city is looking for a long-term space.

Providence Police had 10 officers in quarantine as a precaution after making an arrest last week, but Col. Hugh Clements said all of those officers are now back to work. There are currently two officers in quarantine, Clements said — one because of recent travel and another because of a family member who has flu symptoms.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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