Maine FFs call on state CDC to prioritize first responder virus tests after FD outbreak

Sanford's fire union president said a 72-hour wait for first responders' test results is "unacceptable"

Gillian Graham
Portland Press Herald, Maine

SANFORD, Maine — A coronavirus outbreak at the Sanford Fire Department prompted union and city officials to criticize the state Monday for slow lab results and call for expedited testing of first responders.

Three Sanford firefighters have tested positive for COVID-19, but some members of the department waited until Monday for results from tests done more than three days before, according to the Sanford Fire Fighters Association. The final 10 test results came back negative on Monday.

Sanford firefighters have called on the Maine CDC to prioritize COVID-19 test results for first responders after an outbreak at the department.
Sanford firefighters have called on the Maine CDC to prioritize COVID-19 test results for first responders after an outbreak at the department. (Photo/City of Sanford Fire Department Facebook)

“For it to be 72 hours is unacceptable,” Eric Beecher, President of IAFF Local 1624, said in an interview Monday morning as several firefighters were still waiting for results. “The CDC needs to have a critical status on getting tests completed for critical first responders.”

The Sanford outbreak also has prompted the state to test all firefighters working for Buxton and for Saco because of possible contact with infected Sanford firefighters, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday. The CDC said a fourth person has tested positive in connection with the state’s investigation, but did not say how that person is connected to the Sanford Fire Department.

The Sanford firefighters’ union announced the outbreak Monday morning and called attention to the length of time some firefighters had been waiting for results of tests taken Thursday and Friday. Ten union members had not received their results by Monday morning, and three did not get results until Monday afternoon.

Officials from the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said repeatedly that the state lab can turn test results around in 24 to 48 hours. Robert Long, CDC spokesman, confirmed the outbreak in a news release Monday afternoon, but he did not explain why some of the Sanford tests took more than 72 hours.

“Maine CDC is now aware of the union’s concerns and we are looking into the situation,” long said.

Before the official outbreak led to the CDC taking over the testing, Sanford city officials were getting results in 12 hours through a local provider. The CDC classifies an outbreak at three or more cases that are connected.

“Everyone here at the Sanford Fire Department has been united in working as fast as we can to mitigate the spread of this virus by ensuring that everyone infected has been quickly removed from service and quarantined in order to protect the health and safety of our department, our families and our community,” Beecher said in a written statement. “We were led to believe that the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was going to take our tests and get us the results as soon as possible.”

Beecher urged state public health officials to act immediately to release these tests “so we can do everything we can to curb the spread of this potentially life-threatening virus.” Union members rushed in for testing – some even returned early from vacations – only to have to wait three days for results, he said.

Assistant Fire Chief Robert Arnold said the three positive cases are the first for the 50-member department since the start of the pandemic. He said testing began locally last week, then was transferred to the state. He hopes results for the remaining tests are received Monday.

City Manager Steven Buck said he shares the union’s frustration about the length of time it has taken to get tests results. Prior testing was done locally through Southern Maine Health Care and results were received in less than 12 hours, he said.

“The state talks about the need for more testing and rapid testing, and here we sit,” he said.

Buck has reached out to the CDC to try to get more information about why the results of some tests sent to the CDC on Friday had not come back by Monday. He said the city plans to test department members every seven days until there are no more positive tests.

Long said an epidemiological investigation is underway to determine the origin of the Sanford cases. The first positive test associated with a Sanford Fire Department employee was reported Thursday. The CDC offered testing to all individuals that began Thursday.

Over the weekend, the CDC was notified that one of the affected Sanford Fire Department members and another first responder who had recently tested positive also recently worked with the Buxton Fire Department. On Saturday, testing was arranged for all Buxton fire employees, their families and others who were potentially exposed to the virus, Long said.

The CDC is also arranging testing for all Saco Fire Department employees because one of potential contact with one of the confirmed positive cases, Long said.

Long said several individuals have been placed in quarantine following exposure to first responders affected by COVID-19, but did not specify if those were other first responders or members of the communities they serve.

The Maine CDC and Maine EMS on Saturday sent an alert to all fire chiefs and EMS directors in the state to reaffirm support for first responders that includes access to PPE and testing, according to Long.

“Maine CDC has prioritized first responders for PPE since the beginning of the pandemic and offers universal testing for first responders in the event of a single case,” Long said in a statement.

The city cannot disclose how many fire department employees may be quarantined, Buck said. The only positive case in a Sanford city employee before this outbreak was back in April. That person returned to work after testing negative, he said.

Despite the positive tests, Arnold said the department is able to cover staffing using overtime as needed. Access to the station is limited and staff are increasing the use of PPE, he said.

“Sanford Fire Department is still here and able to perform our responsibility to the community,” Arnold said. “We’re taking all the precautions necessary to keep ourselves and the community safe.”

The department continues to follow CDC guidelines for critical employees by wearing personal protective equipment on calls, including N95 masks, gowns, eye protection and gloves whenever there is contact with the public, Beecher said.

The department’s supply of PPE is monitored daily and there is currently an adequate supply, Arnold said.

Michael Crouse, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Maine, said Gov. Janet Mills and her administration need to make rapid COVID-19 testing a priority when an outbreak occurs at a firehouse and ensure the results are available immediately to protect frontline workers, their families and the community.

“The coronavirus outbreak at the Sanford Fire Department underscores how critical it is to ensure that our first responders are given top priority in receiving direct access to COVID-19 testing and that they receive their results in a timely fashion,” Crouse said in a statement. “By not immediately giving these first responders access to testing and rapid results, it adds an additional stress to our members as they are greatly concerned for the well-being of the citizens they protect as well as their coworkers and their families.”

Maine’s cumulative cases rose to 4,335 on Sunday, according to the Maine CDC. Of those, 3,890 have been confirmed by testing and 445 are considered probable cases of COVID-19. There have been 131 deaths from COVID-19 in Maine.


©2020 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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