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How Henrico firefighters respond to COVID-19 nursing home calls

Posted at 12:01 AM, Mar 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-31 09:57:48-04

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- They heard about it in China, then Italy, and even in Washington state, and by mid-March, the new coronavirus was in Henrico County.

"When we started to respond to these events, we started to realize this is kinda different, this is something we haven't responded to in the past," said Captain Jason Wood from Firehouse 13 in Henrico County's West End. "This is definitely something we're not used to."

His firefighters are on the front lines of what is considered the first epicenter of COVID-19 in the Richmond region: Canterbury Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center.

So far, 7 residents have died of COVID-19 related illnesses, with an additional 2 deaths pending COVID-19 results, and 35 other residents and six staffers have tested positive for the virus, according to the latest numbers from Dr. Danny Avula, head of the Richmond and Henrico Health Departments.

By Sunday, Wood's crew had responded to calls for service at Canterbury 24 times.

Calls for service there are up a whopping 340 percent from last year for symptoms that could be COVID-19 related, according to data from the Henrico County Fire Department.

"We need to make sure our folks are safe," Captain Wood said.

And, it's not just Canterbury where cases are popping up.

There are more than 40 skilled care facilities operate in Henrico County, and data from the county shows calls for service are up at several of them.

"They are some high numbers," Henrico Fire Chief Alec Oughton said.

But, thankfully, Oughton said the county has a "playbook" of sorts to refer to on how to hand its response to this unprecedented health crisis.

The playbook is a COVID-19 response document from Kirkland, Washington, which is home to the first skilled nursing facility in the U.S. to have an outbreak.

"We used a ton of these recommendations in identifying response policy," Chief Oughton said.

Based on the suggestions, Henrico is now limiting the number of responders that go into a facility to one or two, and working with nursing homes to have patients brought as close to the ambulance entrance as possible.

"We also are trying to conserve our PPE because there is a limited supply, and we are trying to conserve that," Captain Wood said.

Henrico firetrucks and ambulances now show telltale signs of the pandemic: N95 masks, protective gowns, and eye protection."We are wearing respiratory protection on every medical call we go on now, whether they're symptomatic or not," Wood said.

If things get really bad, and Henrico runs out of PPE, Chief Oughton said you may even see first responders in fire gear.

"We have a fall back position to our self contained breathing apparatus, which is a closed loop system where they can breath air that's in their air pack," Chief Oughton said.

All of the changes should protect responders from getting the virus so they can stay on the job and respond to emergencies, whether they are COVID-19 related or not.

Still, Chief Oughton said the community needs to do its part too, and only call 911 for life threatening emergencies.