Elgin, IL Fire Department Faces Rise of Firefighters with COVID-19

Elgin Fire Department Fire Truck
(Elgin Fire Department photo)

Majority diagnosed in October and December

Gloria Casas, The Courier-News, Elgin, Ill.

(MCT)

Dec. 15—Thirty of the 34 cases of COVID-19 contracted by Elgin firefighters since March have occurred between October and early December, fire department data shows.

What that means is 25.5% of the department’s 133 firefighters have tested positive for the virus since the start of the pandemic, but the vast majority — 22.5% — were diagnosed in the last two months.

Fire Chief Robert Cagann said the number sounds high but is actually about the same as the general population. Tracing shows there’s been no one person or event to which the cases can be linked, he said.

“If you look at the national trends, we are right in line with what’s happening everywhere,” he said. “Other departments have experienced the same type of increase over those months.”

Cagann debunked a rumor that a retirement party in early November served as a super spreader event. Unlike the traditional retirement sendoff, a ceremony followed by refreshments attended by the retiree and his/her family and friends, this gathering was much more limited, he said.

“It wasn’t a ceremony. It was stop by, say goodbye to the guy for 30 years of service and leave,” Cagann said. No one was there for a significant length of time, he said.

“We’ve gone through the numbers, and there is no correlation between that event or any other nonemergency activity,” Cagann said.

The department schedules 32 firefighters a day, and the department was able to “maintain that throughout the 14 to 21 days we had our highest peak,” he said. “All these cases were not all at one time. We never had to change operationally to manage our minimum staffing levels.”

The first fire department cases occurred in April, about a month into the pandemic, when four firefighters test positive. The department was able to trace the cases to a single patient, Cagann said.

Three of the firefighter went into a 14-day quarantine and a fourth needed to be off for about six months because of the severity of his case, he said.

What they’re seeing now are isolated incidents that cannot be tied to any one event or person, Cagann said.

“We aren’t seeing entire crews testing positive,” he said. “We are seeing individuals test positive here and there.”

As of right now, two firefighters are quarantining and a third is being treated for the virus, Cagann said.

“Our safety precautions at work have not changed since April or May when we were able to implement N95 masks on every single call,” he said.

“What we’ve tried to do is greatly reduce the chances of having our firefighters and paramedics contracting the virus on calls from patients. We have a very high standard of safety protocols. I feel very confident that spread is not necessarily from the job.”

The people firefighters are having contact with when they’re not on the job would seem to be the culprit, Cagann said.

“This is not an indictment of any of our guys, but we know we have people who have obviously contracted it from family members,” the fire chief said.

Cagann has sent memos to firefighters “urging everybody to just be diligent in their off-duty activities, wear masks, social distance and do all the things everyone has been doing,” he said. “Here’s the thing, you can be as diligent as you want. But if your spouse or kids contract it, odds are you’re going to get it.”

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how or where a firefighter contracted COVID, Cagann said. Under a state law passed in the spring, the legal presumption is firefighters and police officers who test positive picked up the virus through the job so their worker’s comp rights can be protected, he said.

The rash of firefighter COVID cases demonstrates just how vulnerable the entire population is during this pandemic, Cagann said. Firefighters respond to all calls wearing N95 masks, face shields, gowns, and gloves and the department exceeds CDC, state and local guidelines, he said.

“The possibility of transmission is greatly reduced but it can’t be eliminated,” he said.

As a COVID-19 vaccine starts rolling out this week, firefighters won’t receive the shots until after the highest-priority groups — health care workers and nursing home patients and staff — are inoculated first.

“We have not had any conversations with state or county agencies (as to when) we are in line for the vaccine,” Cagann said. “The logistics are tremendous. I can only imagine what’s happening at the state and federal levels. It’s a huge, huge undertaking.”

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