The Durango Fire Protection District is experiencing serious staffing issues after a handful of crew members recently tested positive for COVID-19, said Chief Hal Doughty.
Two crew members who tested positive for COVID were at fire department facilities, which caused about 14 staff members to be placed in quarantine. A third crew member, who had been on vacation, also tested positive, Doughty said.
“It’s a huge staffing puzzle,” Doughty said. “We have a certain number of people it takes to staff all our units. ... We’re working hard on that, asking people to work more than they are used to, to ensure we have a healthy workforce.”
The first known case came to light Oct. 20, and two days later, 22 staff members were tested. Of that number, one additional person tested positive.
A third crew member who was on vacation is believed to have contracted the virus while out of town, but that person has not come back to the fire station and is in quarantine, Doughty said.
“We’ve done all our tracing,” Doughty said. “And we tested everyone that could possibly have been exposed to the original person last week.”
Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health, said the local health department was beginning its investigation Monday morning. According to state guidelines, an “outbreak” is defined as two or more cases at a location in a 14-day period, though the situation at DFPD was not officially an outbreak as of Monday morning, Jollon said.
“We appreciate DFPD for going way above and beyond minimum standards for community health and safety,” she said. “With ongoing community transmission, there is always a possibility of outbreaks in a variety of settings.”
Doughty said the first person to test positive was exposed to the virus by a family member, outside the fire station. That person didn’t know he or she had the virus and came to work.
It’s believed the first person who tested positive unknowingly exposed the virus to staff members, either at one station or at a class training. About 14 people who were at the station or in the class are now in quarantine, Doughty said.
DFPD is offering alternative lodging for staff members who are unable to quarantine in their current living situations. Only a handful of people have taken advantage of the offer, Doughty said.
“We believe the right thing to do is take no chances at all,” he said. “We’re doing everything we possibly can to make sure this thing is nipped in the bud.”
Since the pandemic started earlier this year, DFPD has kept workers in small cohorts to prevent spread throughout the crew. Nonessential workers are asked to work from home, and the station is closed to the public, Doughty said.
Face coverings were required on all calls, but before the current situation, masks were not required when among small cohorts, believing it was a family-type situation wherein staff members were constantly exposed to other workers, Doughty said.
“We’ve now upped that requirement for everyone that comes to the station now to wear masks 100% of the time when in contact with someone else,” he said.
DFPD is calling on all full-time, part-time and volunteers to step in to help. Doughty said the district is taking the increase in cases seriously given the number of public interactions the job requires, especially among people who can be immunocompromised.
“Many of them have those pre-existing conditions that they talk about,” he said. “So this is something we take exceptionally seriously. It’s not something we can afford to take any risk with.”
Doughty said staff members are going to be retested Monday. He said the people who tested positive are doing well.
COVID-19 cases are on the rise in La Plata County, according to San Juan Basin Public Health. The health department reported 37 new cases during the week of Oct. 17-23 in La Plata County, and the county had a total of 383 cases as of Sunday.
Public health orders put in place to slow the spread of the virus were tightened Monday. The new restrictions include earlier last-call times for alcohol and a lower limit to the number of people who can gather at any one time in one place.