Ensuring firefighters get the proper physical and mental health care will be key to responding to the next COVID wave
By Rick Markley
As bad as the COVID-19 outbreak was this past spring, there’s little doubt that it will be worse when cooler weather arrives in the coming months. And that’s troubling for fire and EMS responders.
That was the sobering message from Dr. Jim Augustine at today’s International Association of Fire Chief’s virtual FRI show. Augustine is, among other things, fire and EMS medical direct for hospitals in Atlanta, Naples, Florida, and Dayton, Ohio.
The good doctor’s presentation wasn’t all gloom and doom. He offered some encouraging signs and steps volunteer departments can take to armor themselves against COVID in round three. But first the bad news.
If this virus follows the same pattern as past pandemics, this fall is will be worse than the first wave we experienced in spring and the re-opening spike we saw in summer. Compounding that will be the arrival of our usual suspects: the common cold, influenza and other seasonal respiratory ailments.
Making matters worse, the jury is still out on what will constitute durable immunity for those who have already had COVID-19. “It just hasn’t been on the planet long enough,” he said of the virus. He suspects it will not infect those with immunity, but the science hasn’t been able to back that up yet.
Several COVID-19 vaccines are making their way through clinical trials. While it is unclear when those will be ready for public consumption, Augustine recommends firefighters get vaccinated against this year’s seasonal viruses. That, he says, will reduce their risk of getting sick on and off the job.
Augustine said he doesn’t anticipate additional shortages of PPE and cleaning materials as we experienced in the spring. However, departments should still examine how much PPE such as gloves, mask and gowns they burned through in the spring and ensure they have enough to carry them through this fall and winter.
To successfully mitigate this round of COVID-19, fire departments will need to work with other public safety agencies to share things like human resource policies for members who are sick and best practices for protection and cleaning. IAFC has collected some best practices and a host of other resources for departments here.
Augustine advises departments to pay close attention to regional and state data on the number of new COVID cases, COVID-related hospitalizations and COVID-related deaths. He said he expects more cases as more testing is conducted. But watching for increases in hospitalization and deaths is a good indication of how serious those new cases are.
For fire departments who run EMS, Augustine says to look for more hospitals being designated as “hot” or “cold” facilities for COVID care. Much like with trauma or stroke center designations, fire departments could find themselves transporting to facilities designated as the best equipped to handle COVID-19 patients and bypassing closer, less-equipped sites.
Fire departments will also have to work with health agencies to deliver public health education to their communities. This, Augustine said, will include educating people on what constitutes “sick.” They will need to be told when it is necessary to call 911, when they can visit their personal physician or a clinic and when they can stay home and self-treat. Further, there will need to be concise instructions on how to best self-treat and isolate.
Most important, fire and EMS leaders will need to protect the physical and mental wellbeing of their members. In normal times, deaths tend to increase between late November and March. With a new, fiercer wave of COVID-19 on the horizon, the number of deaths is almost certain to increase.
That exposure to death and dying will take its toll on first responders, he said. As with providing adequate PPE and training, making sure firefighters are getting the mental health care they need will ensure they are ready and available when the tones drop this fall and winter.