Public safety officials discuss COVID-19 impact on first responders

Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington speaks during a press conference on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. Photo: KSTP. Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington speaks during a press conference on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020.

Updated: December 02, 2020 10:14 PM
Created: December 02, 2020 02:56 PM

Each passing day of increasing COVID cases in Minnesota leads to new challenges for first responders across the state.

During a COVID-19 briefing with Governor Tim Walz, Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington and first responders spoke about the impact the pandemic is having on public safety. Just as community spread is impacting hospitals, Harrington said the virus is spreading in police, sheriff and fire departments, leading to issues with staffing.

"Many folks I talk to see COVID as being a metro area thing, but quite literally, as we've been talking to chiefs of police, sheriffs, fire chiefs, EMS chiefs, this is literally a statewide issue that is affecting public safety," he said.

Eagan Police Chief Roger New said the virus has affected how his department operates.

According to New, since the beginning of November, 19 staff members have been impacted by the virus. He said this has resulted in changes to work schedules for officers, as well as changes in their roles.

He added that it has impacted how new staff members are trained.

New also said the concern of community spread goes beyond their roles with the department.

"Every day a police officer goes to work, just as medical providers, the paramedics and firefighters, we all risk bringing that virus home to our families and it creates stressors at home," New said.

Jay Wood, a longtime volunteer with the Plato Fire Department, said the virus also hurt his department's ability to do its job.

"Just like we preach about fire safety, one little spark can cause a fire, and that's exactly what happened to us," Wood said.

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After three-fourths of the department of 20 to 25 volunteer firefighters was affected by COVID-19, either testing positive or needing to quarantine, the chief took the department out of service for a short time in mid-November. The department had to rely on its mutual aid agreements with other departments. Wood said the department has since returned to full service.

"We are not alone as a small department of dealing with the virus and the staffing issues it has presented us," Wood said.

Ross Chavez, a paramedic in the Twin Cities, also spoke about the fatigue those in the profession face.

"It's challenging at best and unsustainable at worst," he said.

Ross said he and his colleagues are often asked by the public what they can do to help. He said he responds by asking them to follow the advice of public health experts.

"Following these guidelines will help us stay healthy so we can respond to the emergencies of our communities in a timely fashion," Chavez said.

Before the meeting, the Minnesota Fire Chiefs Association and the Minnesota Fire Department Association sent the governor a letter urging him to press federal officials to prioritize COVID vaccine for first responders.

"During the pandemic thus far, 99 of 498 fire departments reporting across the state have had COVID-19 outbreaks," the letter said. "This number is rapidly increasing and the ability for many departments to respond to emergencies is on the verge of collapsing."

So far, health care professionals and long-term care workers are getting top priority for vaccine with first responders in the next tier of priority. Walz said he agrees first responders should be given priority but said the decision is in the hands of federal officials.

"These are decisions that need to be based on the science," he said. "They need to be based on the best practices. They need to be based on the ethics. This is not a decision that the governor makes or the governor makes alone."

State officials are expected to get more information about vaccine distribution next week.

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