By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Atmore police and firefighters take all kinds of precautions to avoid contracting COVID-19. They wear top-notch personal protective gear and they are warned in advance that they are being sent to a location where COVID-19 has been — and still may be — present.
Still, the public safety officers are not immune to the novel coronavirus, which has been confirmed in more than 1,000 county residents and has caused 17 deaths.
Six officers and employees of Atmore Police Department have been sidelined by confirmed cases; two city firefighters have tested positive for the virus.
APD Chief Chuck Brooks agreed that even one case creates a scheduling nightmare, especially since the police department has no reserve officers to fill the gaps.
“You think?” he said when asked if the virus caused him headaches. “It’s terrible. I have to pull officers from other shifts to cover for anyone that gets sick. We wear gloves and masks, and the fire department has helped us out with protective gear on several calls. But it’s like everybody else. Even with dispatchers telling the officers they are going into a ‘hot spot,’ it’s hard to maintain social distancing if you’re in close quarters.”
AFD Chief Ron Peebles, whose department had two firefighters who were tested and briefly quarantined after an incident earlier this year (both were negative), said last week that only two firefighters have tested positive for COVID-19.
But he worries that more might be coming, partly due to the nature of AFD’s work.
“We have our breathing tanks, we have N95 masks, and we have all the proper personal protective equipment, but there’s always the chance that we’re going to be exposed,” Peebles said. “We take all the precautions, follow the protocols, but you can’t go to a wreck and ask the person if he or she has tested positive for COVID before you cut them out of their vehicle.”
Changes in the protocols outlined by officials of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) might or might not help both agencies avoid the spread of COVID-19. Peebles and Brooks each said he would follow the suggestions.
“The CDC has new protocols now,” said Brooks. “Basically, a person has to quarantine for 10 days before he or she comes back to work. Before, they could return to work after 14 days and after being symptom-free for 24 hours. They also used to have to get two negative tests; now they don’t have to do that.”
Peebles said he feels lucky that the virus hasn’t been more prevalent within the fire department but added that he can see a time when he might have to call on the dozen or so volunteers who often provide extra manpower.
“We’ve been really fortunate so far,” he said. “I’m scared that we’re going to have a mess before too long, if this COVID thing keeps hanging on. If we do have any problems, I guess we’ll deal with them when they happen.”