While Emergency Medical Service workers and firefighters were 15 times more likely to contract the coronavirus than members of the public during the early weeks of the pandemic, the Fire Department's decision to limit firefighters' responses to calls involving COVID symptoms made them five times less likely to develop severe infections than their EMS counterparts, according to a study led by Dr. David Prezant, the FDNY's Chief Medical Officer.
The exemption of firefighters from responding to those cases, even as they responded to calls involving heart attacks and other maladies where COVID symptoms might also be present, was designed to minimize the possibility that entire firehouses—where members eat and sometimes sleep—would come down with the virus.
62 Serious Cases, 4 Deaths
During the time period studied beginning in March, 62 department responders contracted severe COVID-19 infections, and four EMS members died.
The union presidents who represent EMS workers said the findings from Dr. Prezant, who is also a Professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, further supported their case for pay and benefit parity with police officers and firefighters.
"We are the first ones in the door—the proverbial tip of the spear," said Vincent Variale, president of District Council 37 Local 3621, which represents EMS officers. "So now we have the statistics that further document just how disgraceful it is that the city refuses to acknowledge EMS as an emergency uniform service."
He added, "Let's hope the Mayor will look at this report, and with the results of the election and the possibility of cooperation from the Federal Government, will provide the EMS with the hazard pay we are due."
Found Lingering Effects
A COVID survivor himself, Mr. Variale said there needed to be more research into the lingering effects, something that medical journals have found may affect as many as one in three survivors.
Researchers have flagged coronary, respiratory and nervous symptoms in virus survivors.
"They need to try and find out the answers to these kinds of questions," Mr. Variale said. "This is not going to go away with the vaccine. This is going to stick around for a while, so we need to find out more about it, not just for our members, but for the general public."
Oren Barzilay, president of DC 37's Local 2507, which represents Emergency Medical Technicians, said, "We go into so many highly infected areas that a medical study would have to show this. We are in people's homes, nursing homes, and medical facilities. It just validates how extremely dangerous these first-responder jobs are."
He shared Mr. Variale's concern about the dearth of medical research on the long-term health consequences for his members who survived the virus.
'Heart Issues Ever Since'
"I have one member, a young woman in her mid-30s, who's been sick with COVID since the beginning, and she had heart issues ever since and has been on medical leave for six months," he said.
"Our study emphasizes the higher risk of COVID-19 infection for FDNY responders corresponding with the surge in pandemic-related emergency calls," Dr. Prezant said in a statement. "Although all staff follow the same [personal protective equipment] protocol, it could be that emergency medical workers were more exposed to COVID-19 than firefighters, for example, while traveling with patients to hospital and administering treatment to help them breathe."
He continued, "These findings highlight the importance of protecting emergency workers in countries around the world and maintaining the capacity of our emergency services in the event of subsequent waves of the pandemic. This means proper use of PPE, but also ensuring emergency workers get flu vaccinations and, when available, COVID-19 vaccinations."
"It is important to note that this group is predominantly male, and we know that men are at a higher risk of COVID-19 infection," said Professor Anita Simonds, president of the European Respiratory Society. "However, this study highlights the risk of infection encountered not only by emergency medical workers, but also to firefighters. The nature of their work means they cannot avoid entering homes or having close contact with members of the public and co-workers. No matter where we live in the world, we rely on these key workers, so we need to do all we can to protect them."
'May Need Redeployment'
She added, "These findings also suggest that people whose lung health is declining face a higher risk of developing a more serious infection, and those individuals may need additional protection or redeployment at work."
The research included 14,290 FDNY personnel including 10,789 Firefighters and 3,501 members of the Emergency Medical Service. The study period ran from Jan. 3 to May 31.
According to the analysis, 5,175 FDNY frontline personnel, or 36.2 percent of the workforce, were either confirmed as having the virus with a positive COVID-19 PCR viral test or suspected of having it based on their symptoms.
Dr. Prezant's research partner in the study was Dr. Michael Weiden, an FDNY medical officer and a Professor of Medicine at NYU Medical School.
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