Summit County first responders talk fears, precautions during COVID-19 shutdown |

Summit County first responders talk fears, precautions during COVID-19 shutdown

A Summit Fire & EMS ambulance is pictured March 13.
Photo by Liz Copan / Summit Daily archive

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the attribution for information about St. Anthony Summit Medical Center.

FRISCO — While most of the county sits at home working remotely, trying to get outside for a secluded walk or just passing time however they can in quarantine, others are working to keep essential services up and running.

And while first responders and those in health care continue to work during the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s certainly not business as usual.

“Are some of our people scared or apprehensive? Absolutely,” Summit Fire & EMS Chief Jeff Berino said. “This is new for us. Fires you can see, and we know what it’s going to do. This enemy we can’t see. So I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t apprehension.”

Operationally, Summit Fire has seen a significant reduction in need. Berino said the department’s call load has dropped by as much 80%, citing the departure of tourists, no major winter storms and community members generally trying to avoid nonessential hospital visits.

Though, the dangers of everyday calls during a pandemic aren’t lost on firefighters and paramedics. And responders are doing everything they can to protect themselves from the new coronavirus.

“For us, it’s a concern of keeping ourselves healthy, and not taking any risks we might have in another situation,” Summit Fire & EMS Capt. Ryan Cole said. “We’re not coming to the front door with five of us for a patient. We’re coming to the door with one or two of us to assess what’s going on and moving from there. We’re treating it kind of like a hazmat situation, slowing our response so that we’re not exposing people to anything they don’t need to be exposed to.”

Berino also noted that firefighters and medics likely would be responding to some calls in personal protective equipment — including masks, glasses, gowns and gloves — to prevent contracting the disease.

The worst-case scenario is for a responder to get sick and spread the illness to the rest of the crew.

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“That’s about as bad a situation as we can envision,” said Steve Lipsher, the fire district’s public information officer. “If we got an entire crew contaminated, that could mean four or five firefighters and a couple of medics all knocked out in one swoop. It could be devastating.”

The district already has closed stations to the public, and officials said extra cleaning measures and social distancing efforts were taking place in-house. So far, the efforts are paying off.

Berino noted that no one in the district has tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. Four are currently awaiting test results, though none have a known exposure to the virus.

Taking the illness back to the firehouse isn’t the only concern for responders, many of whom fear carrying it back to their spouse or kids.

“We’re taking this seriously, so that when we do go home, even if we’re a little stressed, we know we’ve done everything we can to not bring it with us,” Cole said. “We have to take some steps that we wouldn’t normally take. But right now, staying safe and healthy at work, and not taking anything home to our families is what we’re thinking about.”

Things have changed operationally for the county’s law enforcement agencies, as well. Police chiefs also are reporting a drop in call volume with crowds prohibited and the tourist population already dispersed.

But there are still “disturbance” calls coming across the radio with some frequency.

‘There’s always the incidents within the incident,” Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “We’re dealing with the stresses of the community. We reduced our person-to-person contacts — the calls that we’re responding to. The calls that we are responding to all seem to involve drugs and alcohol, domestic violence or mental health issues. To me, that’s a sign of what’s going on in the community.”

Still, law enforcement officers are making adjustments to protect themselves, their colleagues and their families from the virus, including additional medical screenings before officers respond to calls. 

“It’s nothing like we’ve seen before,” Summit County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Mark Gafari said. “It’s been a shock at work and outside of work, seeing the news worldwide. … The job doesn’t change, but we’re adapting to the possibility that someone may have a virus and coordinating responses. It’s an extra layer, but we have to change our approach to make sure others couldn’t potentially be infected.”

Perhaps no profession has been forced further onto the front lines in the fight against the new coronavirus than doctors, nurses and other health care workers.

St. Anthony Summit Medical Center Dr. Marc Doucette said the hospital’s patient volume has dropped by about 50% below expected numbers this time of year. Though, as expected, things have been busy.

“This is fairly unprecedented to have an epidemic of this magnitude,” Doucette said. “There have been others in the past. But the previous ones have not been as significant in terms of the United States. This is a first for me and for many of us in the health care field.”

Doucette noted that the drop in call load has been made up for with additional meetings and phone calls. Overall, things have gone as well as expected for the hospital, he said.

“We’re doing all the things that are recommended to limit the spread of infection in general, especially when we go home to our families,” Doucette said. “But the morale has been good. I have to compliment our physicians, our staff, our nurses and everyone for stepping up their efforts and doing an amazing job over the last few weeks.”

Taylor Sienkiewicz contributed to reporting this story.

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