Concern for New York’s firefighters paramedics grows as outbreak soars across city

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EMS crews remove woman from her building after she became ill. They didn’t believe she had coronavirus, but took no chances. (File photo/Todd Maisel)

As the number of people being diagnosed with COVID-19 accelerates in New York City, first responders are using even greater caution as they work to help the sick while trying to protect themselves from infection.

Union leaders representing emergency medical personnel say not enough is being done to protect their members.

The Fire Department nonetheless insisted that it is following all procedures.

“The FDNY is following guidelines for PPE set forth by CDC and NY State/City health departments. The Department is managing the supply of critical supplies, including masks, but the entire healthcare industry knows these items are in shorter supply every day,” according to an FDNY statement.

Emergency Medical Service techs and paramedics are on the front lines of treating and transporting sick people, especially now those who have tested positive for the coronavirus. Firefighters and police officers have now been told that they should not respond or remain outside as medical personnel treat and then transport people who complain of fever, breathing issues or any other symptoms of the contagion.

Oren Barzilay, president of FDNY EMS Local 2507, said gloves, masks and protective gear are running in short supply and he says officials are “rolling back safety policies” and even being asked to use “bandanas” to protect ourselves if masks are not available.

“We have over 100 guys out sick, and God knows how many others [who] don’t even know if they have the coronavirus,” Barzilay said. “I’ve talked to some of our members and some have fever, a cough, shortness of breath – just feeling like crap. But now, there is frankly not enough protective gear and not enough manpower.”

Barzilay said they currently have 4,000 EMS responders, but they currently are unable to meet demand event to fill ambulances that, he claimed, are left idle with no personnel.

“When you get a spike in people getting sick from this, it only magnifies the problem in the street,” Barzilay said. “We expect that within the next 24 to 48 hours that the numbers of people sick will double. It’s very trying and we are holding up the line by a thread.”

Barzilay said his union members were “lied to” after the 9/11 attacks that the air was safe after the collapse of the World Trade Center. That has led to great skepticism about the efforts to keep first responders safe now.

“We’ve gone from the N-95 mask to surgical masks and now even a bandana is good enough. Who are they trying to fool?” Barzilay said. “They fooled us on Sept. 11,, 2001, when the EPA said it was safe to breath. Now it’s happening with the virus.”

FDNY officials were not immediately available for comment for this story.

Mike Barasch, an attorney who represents many victims who suffered illness after 9/11, said he was concerned about many first responders. He’s now concerned about the health of 9/11 survivors who have suffered respiratory illnesses and other health issues in the years since.

“It is important that both first responders and non-responders have the right equipment to protect life, including proper gloves and masks to protect us,” Barasch said. “The problem is they are not only risking themselves but subjecting family members to the same germs and viruses. We are very concerned about the 9-11 community – people with respiratory illnesses, asthmas or those with immune compromises to make sure they stay healthy.”

Barzilay added that government should have “planned ahead,” for this type of outbreak. He also called on the public to limit types of calls respond to reduce stress on the system.

“If someone calls for an ambulance for a scratch on face or broken pinky, find another way to the hospital, call a  taxi. We are dealing with very sick people now,” Barzilay said.

To date, 46 FDNY members have tested positive, and medical leave has increased, fire officials say.

A Fire Department statement noted that the FDNY “has made changes to scheduled and procedures to reduce exposure among our ranks, keeping same groups working together, practicing social distancing when possible, and reducing the number of members operating at specific medical calls to conserve supplies and reduce exposure.”

The union is also asking the public to donate gear and supplies to keep first responders safe.  People who do not have excess gear can also donate money at www.EMSFDNYHelpFund.com/donate

Specific gear and supplies currently needed to help protect EMTs and the public include: N95 masks, surgical masks, medical goggles, hand sanitizer and bleach.  To ensure the items get into the hands of first responders in their community, people are instructed to drop them off in a plastic bag outside their local EMS station.

Paramedic helps an EMT adjust protective measures against coronavirus. (File photo/Todd Maisel)