Confirmation that five members from the same Emergency Medical Service station in Astoria, Queens have been diagnosed with COVID-19 has their unions concerned it’s a harbinger of a second wave of the virus.
A spokesman for the Fire Department confirmed that they had been placed on medical leave from Station 49 but denied that there had been any uptick in the rate of infection among the EMS ranks and firefighters.
Out for Two Weeks
The infected members, four of them belonging to District Council 37's Local 2507, which represents Emergency Medical Technicians and the other a member of DC 37's Local 3621, which represents EMS officers, will be on medical leave for at least two weeks.
The cases surfaced as Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio were intensifying efforts to contain outbreaks in 20 zip codes in Queens, Brooklyn and Orange and Rockland counties.
“The department is monitoring the situation closely,” said Frank Dwyer, FDNY deputy commissioner for public information. It is also conducting contact tracing and testing, but not of every employee assigned to the Astoria station, which the EMS unions requested.
Local 3621 President Vincent Variale said he was alerted about the cases Oct. 12.
“I am not saying that with this uptick we should really be worried, but it is of concern because it could be the sign of this beginning again,” he said during a phone interview. “You know what it reminds me of, right before the outbreak got big in New York—the Coney Island FDNY EMS Station 43. There were five members and one of them got sick from his girlfriend.”
The Local 3621 president said he thought the department could get ahead of a potential outbreak by testing everyone at the Astoria station. “It seems we repeat our own mistakes again and again,” he said.
According to Mr. Variale, there is no universal workplace testing for the virus for EMS. “What we have is a [department] survey,” he said. “It’s an app that they want to download on our phones…that asks questions about if you are feeling sick, if you have a fever, or if you having any of the symptoms…and at the end of the questions it tells you whether or not you can come to work and it tells you to contact the Bureau of Health Services.”
The FDNY has launched its annual bio-pod program through which both EMS employees and firefighters can get a flu shot, something that Dr. David Prezant, the FDNY’s chief medical officer strongly recommends.
“Station 49 is not unique—it’s happening elsewhere,” said Oren Barzilay, president of Local 2507. “I am told there are spikes at other places as well. I have been told as many as 200 EMS members may be sick right now.”
He continued, “Over the weekend I inquired about testing and if they were going to close the station and I was told no, that we should continue to work there, make sure to disinfect and use the protective equipment. It’s just a matter of time before the people that came in contact with the members that are now out get sick or come back positive. We didn’t learn anything from the first wave.”
“FDNY members continue to bravely serve on the frontline of the pandemic,” said Mr. Dwyer. “That fact, along with the fact COVID-19 has been spreading through community exposure since the spring, have led to steady numbers of COVID medical leave.”
According to the department, COVID-19 medical leave for both firefighters and EMS for months has remained below three percent. At the height of the pandemic six months ago, EMS medical leave was close to 25 percent. Since March, more than 5,000 FDNY members have tested positive for the coronavirus.
On Oct. 13, USA Today reported the first confirmed American case of a COVID-19 survivor getting reinfected, raising questions about what, if any immunity, a bout with the virus might provide.
The newspaper reported the case involved “an otherwise healthy 25-year-old Nevada man” who “caught COVID-19 twice, with the second infection worse than the first.”
Will Vaccine Protect?
The article said this "raises questions about how long people are protected after being infected with the coronavirus that causes the disease, and potentially how protective a vaccine might be.”
At the FDNY's annual memorial service Oct. 7, which was conducted virtually, it honored 23 active-duty members of the department who died over the previous year, including 11 who died from COVID-19 as well as a Colorado EMT.
The coronavirus-related victims were: EMTs Richard Seaberry, Gregory Hodge, John Redd and Idris Bey; Auto Mechanic James Villecco; Deputy Chief Fire Inspector Syed Rahman; Principal Administrative Associate Kellie Childs; Fire Inspector Edward Mungin; Supervising Auto Mechanic Thomas Ward; Clerical Associate Kenneth Stubbs; Supervising Fire Inspector Mark Remolino, and Aurora, Col. EMT Paul Cary.
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