CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — A disagreement surrounding COVID-19 quarantine protocols has sparked a dispute in Cranston, after the mayor’s office ordered firefighters exposed to infected co-workers to return to work while waiting for test results.
Four Cranston firefighters have tested positive and at one point about 40 coworkers were in quarantine. That total has since fallen to 17, according to union president Scott Robinson.
Based on federal health guidelines, Robinson said the union worked with Fire Chief Stephen McIntosh and the city EMS Director Paul Casey to create a city policy that allows firefighters to quarantine for five days before getting tested.
Robinson said the idea is to allow the virus some time to incubate so infected firefighters might start showing symptoms, which would prevent someone who might initially be asymptomatic from rushing back to work and getting others sick.
But the five-day quarantine means firefighters are sometimes out for extended periods of time, as a firefighter tested on the sixth day might not get results for up to three days, meaning that person could be out for about nine days before receiving an answer.
Mayor Allan Fung’s administration changed the city policy this week to align with protocols established by the R.I. Department of Health, effectively ordering some firefighters back to work. Fung said the state rules don’t allow for any time off for an incubation period, and essential workers are allowed to return to work while they wait for the results.
Fung acknowledges the cost of overtime for the firefighters who fill the shifts of those on quarantine is also a concern that is already putting strain on the city’s budget.
“The health of our first-responders is our main concern and we want anyone with symptoms to stay home,” Fung said. “But you can’t have 41 individuals out at the same time who are not showing any symptoms. A fire department can’t operate that way.”
But Robinson disagrees with Fung’s interpretation of the Health Department rules. He also emphasizes the four firefighters who tested positive were asymptomatic and could have still spread the virus to others.
Robnson also pointed ot firefighters also live together, work next to each other on rescue calls, and share headsets and air tanks.
“If I’m breathing, and I have COVID and it’s passed [through breathing], then it’s going to get in the regulator,” Robinson said. “And we share that bottle. We have our own masks but we don’t each have our own regulator and bottle.”
Fung said the department is taking all the necessary health precautions, including checking firefighters’ temperatures when they report for a shift, and every four hours afterward.
“If they show symptoms, they’re sent home. If you are positive, we’re going to put you out on injured on duty status,” Fung said. “In the interim, we can’t afford to have you wait to get tested and have you wait for the results.”
Robinson again disagreed with the mayor, but said the union and Fire Department administration are working with Fung’s chief of staff Dan Parrillo to potentially come up with a compromise.
The firefighters who are currently out of quarantine are scheduled to come back on duty early next week or sooner if the policy change remains the same.
Either way, Robinson said he is concerned about what this could mean for future COVID-19 cases.
“It really does hurt the firefighters,'” Robinson said. “I might be positive. Or you’re putting me at risk, working with someone who might be positive and then you’re sending me home to my family.”
Fung remains confident the policy is not putting anyone at risk, it meets Health Department protocol and matches what the city is doing with police officers.
“From a staffing perspective, we have to make sure we have enough bodies there or else we’re going to come into overtime costs,” Fung said.