31 Tuscaloosa firefighters on leave after COVID-19 exposure; 1 tests positive

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More than 12 percent of the Tuscaloosa fire department has been put on leave in less than 24 hours after at least one firefighter tested positive for COVID-19.

Seventeen firefighters were put on paid leave Tuesday night. By Wednesday morning, a total of 31 firefighters had been sent home amid coronavirus concerns.

By Wednesday afternoon, said Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, seven had been cleared and returned to work. Additionally, four Tuscaloosa police officers also are on leave after possible exposure.

“It’s very fluid,’’ Maddox said.

Maddox and Tuscaloosa Fire Rescue officials said they cannot discuss specifics of the ill firefighter, but the mayor said he or she is hospitalized and seriously ill. A second firefighter is suspected to have COVID-19, and the rest are quarantined because of possible exposure.

Maddox said both firefighters – the one who has been diagnosed and the one suspected of having coronavirus – are believed to have been exposed through “community spread,” or in other words, not while on active duty.

Fire spokeswoman Holly Whigham said obviously it’s a strain on the department to have so many firefighters out at once. “We’ve been prepared for this and we have a plan in place,’’ Whigham said. “We are not releasing that plan at this time, but we do have a plan to make sure there is adequate coverage.”

Maddox last week issued an executive order extending the public safety curfew for Tuscaloosa residents to 24 hours a day. The order went into effect on Sunday, March 29 at 10 p.m. and will continue until midnight on Saturday, April 11 at which time it will be reevaluated.

Tuscaloosa residents are asked to remain in their home or place of residence at all times, leaving only for essential purposes. These purposes include but are not limited to: work at essential businesses; visiting essential businesses like grocery stores, pharmacies, financial institutions and gas stations; providing care for others; retrieving to-go orders from restaurants; attending doctor’s appointments; and exercising outside – as long as six feet of social distance is maintained.

Businesses and places of employment that are considered essential may continue to operate under health protocols as outlined by the Alabama Department of Public Health. Such businesses include, but are not limited to: public safety and emergency services; public health & medical providers; utility providers; medical providers; media outlets; delivery services; organizations that provide or restock essential services such as food, fuel, pharmaceutical supplies or emergency supplies; and federal, state, county and city governments.

Maddox said the high number of firefighters exposed to the virus is “a preview into the future. “We’re going to see our first responders exposed to it at a higher rate because of their positions,’’ he said. “One of the metrics we are looking at daily is the police department, the fire department and environmental services.”

He said the first responders are equipped with personal protection equipment. In the existing cases, that didn’t matter since they weren’t on duty when they were exposed. Because forecast models show the worst could yet be to come, he said they are trying to preserve that equipment.

“This is why we’re asking everyone to adhere to the 24-hour curfew,’’ he said. “It’s scary and I believe what gets lost in the discussion about coronavirus is not only one’s personal health, but also the ability to provide health care. It can overwhelm the system.”

“I use the analogy that we’re able to put 100,000 people in Bryant Denny Stadium within three hours comfortably, but you could not do that in an hour,’’ he said. “You need to spread it out over a period of time.”

“That’s why we’re asking everyone to abide by the curfew so we can slow the burn rate of those contracting coronavirus,’’ he said, “and slow the influx into the health care system.”

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