Eleven Portland firefighters called out sick over the weekend after learning they had been exposed to a co-worker who later tested positive for COVID-19, city officials said.

City officials determined that none of the 11 firefighters potentially exposed during a Nov. 30 shift at the Bramhall Station was following the city’s mandate that face masks be worn inside firehouses, Fire Chief Keith Gautreau said. He said none of the firefighters is required to quarantine under current state guidance and they chose to take time off to get tested.

Their Sunday shifts were filled by other firefighters who worked overtime, he said.

“There was no impact on public safety,” Gautreau said. 

Chris Thomson, president of the firefighter’s union, could not be reached for an interview Monday afternoon. But Thomson told News Center Maine (WCSH/WLBZ) over the weekend that the firefighters were not staging a protest – they were simply trying to keep the community safe.

“The guys in the station had been with this person concentrated for 24 hours straight,” Thomson told News Center Maine. “They don’t want to take a chance they’re asymptomatic carriers of the COVID.”

In a written response to the Press Herald, Thomson said he didn’t know if the firefighters were complying with the city’s mask-wearing policy. But, he said, “it’s not physically possible” to wear protective equipment at all times in the firehouse, where firefighters eat, sleep and bathe.

“If there is an exposure and we don’t have symptoms or haven’t been tested, we use our judgment and training to make appropriate decisions,” Thomson said in an email Monday evening. “These firefighters analyzed (their) exposure and determined that the responsible thing to do is to be tested prior to returning to work. The group from that station are self-quarantining after a known positive exposure, no different than the rest of planet Earth during an unprecedented pandemic.”

He added, “We are hopeful that their actions have prevented any further infections or at least confined it as much as possible.”

Gautreau said the firefighters were exposed on Nov. 30, their most recent shift. It’s only the second case of a Portland firefighter testing positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

The first individual recovered within two weeks, said Gautreau, who declined to comment on the current individual’s condition.

“My thoughts and prayers are with my other employee,” he said. “I call him and his family once a day to see how they’re doing.”

Gautreau said the Maine CDC and Maine EMS have special guidelines for first responders and other health care professionals to be considered close contacts. Normally, close contacts of someone with COVID-19 – determined as being within 6 feet of the person for 15 minutes – are asked to quarantine for up to two weeks after exposure.

Sam Hurley, EMS director for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said in an email that the CDC recommends a 14-day quarantine for EMS clinicians, but a clinician or other healthcare worker wearing N95 masks or other appropriate personal protective equipment may not be considered a close contact.

“Due to the essential nature of EMS, there is an established pathway by which EMS agencies can maintain staffing based on contingency standards,” he said. “Under these standards, EMS clinicians may work during their quarantine as long as they maintain strict compliance with the standards established by Maine CDC and Maine EMS – face coverings at all times unless in private rooms with no other occupants; physical distance, when possible; good hand and respiratory hygiene; daily screening; adherence to quarantine guidelines outside of work; and meals must be taken separately. This pathway is only available for individuals who are asymptomatic and have not tested positive for COVID-19.”

Those are the rules the city is operating under, said Gautreau, adding the city has six months’ worth of personal protective equipment, or PPE.

“I need my staff to be able to work. If you’re positive, I don’t want you at work,” Gautreau said. “We’re in close contact with positive patients all the time, but we’re in our full PPE and we put a mask on the patient too.”

The city began requiring firefighters to wear masks at all times when unable to physically distance, including in the firehouse, Gautreau said. Prior to that they were required to wear them while out in public, he said.

“One of the biggest reasons they were considered close contacts was because of a lack of mask wearing,” he said. “Had they been following our protocol and wearing their masks we would have been OK.”

Firefighters were notified of the new policy on Oct. 30 and it took effect Nov. 2, according to a notice provided by the city.

Thomson did not respond to questions about whether that policy was adequately communicated and understood by the rank-and-file.

The firefighters were not offered testing by the city, but pursued it on their own, and the costs are covered by the city’s insurance plan, Gautreau said.

Gautreau commended the city’s efforts to keep first responders safe, despite constant contact with COVID-positive patients. That only two members of the 224-member department have contracted the virus shows the force has been taking appropriate measures to keep the stations clean, Gautreau said. Both known infections occurred outside of work, he said.

Gautreau was not aware of any firefighters refusing to wear a mask, or being disciplined for not wearing a mask. Since last week’s exposure, firefighters have done more to ensure masks are worn and they’re socially distancing, especially at the firehouse and while eating meals, he said.

Some other fire departments require firefighters to quarantine after possible exposure, but doing so in Portland would lead to staff shortages, so only people who test positive or who are exhibiting symptoms are required to isolate themselves, Gautreau said.

He said only one of the 11 firefighters will report to work on their next scheduled shift Tuesday.

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