At least eight firefighters in the GTA have tested positive for COVID-19, CBC News has learned, including six in Toronto, one in Mississauga and one in Oakville.
None of the Toronto firefighters have been hospitalized and all are self-isolating, said Frank Ramagnano, president of the Toronto Firefighters Association. He said the six firefighters tested positive over the past two weeks.
While some of the affected firefighters worked closely together, a few of them did not. Ramagnano says more than 200 firefighters are now in self-isolation, either due to travel or COVID-19 exposure. He says the two latest cases were already self-quarantining when they tested positive.
Ramagnano says there are contingency plans in case for the absences, and people should not worry about the quality of their fire services.
Members have cancelled vacation, he said, which has helped keep staffing at a normal level.
Other Oakville firefighters not self-isolating, association says
One firefighter in Oakville has also tested positive on Saturday for COVID-19, said Carmen Santoro, president of the Oakville Professional Firefighters Association.
However, other Oakville firefighters have not been told to self-isolate, Santoro said. Instead “everybody is self-monitoring.”
“His crew is on duty today,” he said.
Fire Chief Brian Durdin said the firefighter’s last shift was on March 19, and he did not develop symptoms until March 23.
The Niagara Public Medical Health unit is following all protocols and “primarily reaching out to direct contacts that took place after March 21,” Durdin said.
The firefighter is currently at home in self-isolation, he said.
‘Concerned about the potential health risk’
However, Santoro said the association disagrees and believes his immediate crew members should also be self-isolating.
“I’m concerned about the potential health risk to everyone. To the public, to the firefighters, my members, my members’ families,” he said, noting the firefighter works closely with a team of three others.
The Oakville fire station was immediately deep-cleaned by an industrial cleaning company, Santoro said.
“I’m just concerned about who has come into contact with our member when he was contagious,” he said.
Chief Durdin says they “follow the recommendations of the Medical Officer of Health for Halton Region as they are the higher medical authority.” He said the health of all employees is their top priority, and noted new mandatory self-screening protocols for all firefighters during their shifts.
Santoro urges people calling 911 to let them know if they have any symptoms at all.
Regardless of your medical condition, “we will respond,” he said. “We just need to know so that we can properly protect ourselves.”
1 firefighter in Mississauga
Mississauga Fire Chief Tim Beckett said he learned Saturday night that one firefighter tested positive.
People who had direct contact with that firefighter have been contacted by Public Health and are now self-isolation, he said.
Mississauga closed the affected fire station and are in the process of decontaminating and deep cleaning, Beckett added.
Beckett said he hasn’t spoken with the firefighter directly, but was told they are self-isolating at home.
“Spirits appear to be OK, given the situation,” he said.
There is no disruption to fire service in Mississauga, he said.
‘Like being hit by a truck’
Firefighters are particularly at risk of coming into contact with the virus, said Santoro, because they respond to a wide range of calls.
“We respond to more than just fires. We go to medical calls and all other emergencies,” he said.
“We’re just very vulnerable to the virus if anyone is carrying it.”
Ramagnano says all six Toronto members are physically fit, but the virus is still hard on their bodies.
“They say it’s like being hit by a truck. It just affects their whole body,” he said.
One runs marathons, said Ramagnano, but said for two days “every single minute [felt] like he just finished a marathon.”
‘If you want to help firefighters out, stay at home’
Ramagnano says fire crews are now self screening before coming to work, washing hands and trying to stay at least 2 metres from each other.
Keeping a distance from other firefighters is very difficult, he said.
“For years, our strength has been our teamwork,” Ramagnano said. “That’s how we’re able to deal with almost every emergency we come across.”
“I am terrified” about the virus going through the union, Ramagnano said.
If there’s an alarm call in the building, wait for instructions — don’t all go to the lobby, he said. If you’re calling for an emergency, meet the crew outside so they don’t have to go in.
“If you want to help firefighters out, stay at home.”