New Orleans Fire Superintendent Tim McConnell. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The New Orleans Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services are no longer assigning two weeks’ quarantine for first responders exposed to coronavirus patients, according to NOFD Superintendent Tim McConnell and EMS spokesperson Jonathon Fourcade. Instead, those who have been exposed but aren’t showing any symptoms of the virus will continue to report for duty.

Exposed firefighters will now be required to wear medical masks and closely monitor themselves for any potential symptoms, including taking their temperature twice a day. All EMS workers, meanwhile, will wear masks and take their temperature regardless of exposure, Fourcade said. 

Fourcade said the five EMS workers who were originally quarantined have been called back into work. He couldn’t provide an updated number of EMS workers who have been exposed. 

So far, no New Orleans firefighters have tested positive for the virus, McConnell said, but 14 have come in contact with people who have. The first six were placed on two weeks of at-home quarantine. McConnell said that with the growing number of cases, the department was forced to shift its policy. 

“We’re realizing that isn’t possible, it’s not realistic, we’ll run out of people,” McConnell said. “We can’t afford to have everyone out of the game. If God forbid this gets worse, but I think we know it’s going to, you’re going to see nurses and doctors who have been very exposed, just like paramedics and firefighters, at work treating people and responding. You don’t have much choice.”

As of Monday evening, there were 136 people in Louisiana who tested positive for the coronavirus, 94 of which are in Orleans Parish. That was based on 374 tests that the state’s lab has completed. 

The NOFD has dealt with staffing problems for years. Last month, the New Orleans Fire Fighters Association was locked in a heated confrontation over pensions, overtime pay and off-duty details. All of the complaints connected back to what the union described as “the lowest staffing numbers in the department’s 128-year history.” 

“Many fire fighters regularly clock 96-hour work weeks,” said a union press release from February.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration was able to reach a deal with the union to prevent a general strike early this month. That, however, did not immediately fix the department’s staffing woes. 

Prior to The Lens’ interview with McConnell, union president Aaron Mischler complained about a lack of policy clarity from the city. 

“The lack of information has been the hardest part,” he said. “The lack of protocol, readiness. We’re trying to play catch up right now… Nothing’s coming out in writing. There’s no direction for it.”

McConnell said that the policy was new and hasn’t been put into writing yet. The Lens was unable to reach Mischler for a second interview. But in the first conversation, Mischler said he disagreed with having exposed firefighters report for work.

“That’s what I’m trying to find out right now — if that’s really the protocol they’re using,” Mischler said. “Because that’s irresponsible, just stupid.”

McConnell said that the new policy is in line with nationally recognized guidelines.

“All the city’s first responders, including the fire department, are in line with the CDC, the Louisiana Department of Health and the city’s Health Department, understanding that this is a dynamic and fluid situation that changes very very quickly.”

He added that firefighters are in fact healthcare professionals who receive training for situations like this.

“No one put them on a fire truck without training,” he said. “The firefighters know their job and want to be in the game.”

McConnell also said on Monday that the fire department will no longer respond to medical 911 calls if the caller is describing symptoms of coronavirus. He said 911 calls are now being screened for coronavirus symptoms through a new policy called “protocol 36.”

“After a discussion with EMS last week, the NOFD was removed from response for things that come through the protocol 36 screening that indicate it possibly could involve COVID-19,” McConnell said. “On life threatening calls — on cardiac arrests where someone’s heart stops beating, major vehicle accidents, injuries — we will still go on those.”

Mischler appeared to agree with that approach. 

“With our staffing shortages the way they are, it’s not that we don’t want to be out there helping the public, there’s nothing we can do for [the coronavirus] right now,” Mischler said. “And if someone needs our help in a life threat, of course we go there. If someone’s having a heart attack or something like that, absolutely.”

McConnell pointed out that even on a call for a car accident, for example, a victim could still be carrying the virus and transmit it to a firefighter. He said as the virus spreads and more first responders come into contact with infected people, they will have to continue to adapt even in the face of staffing shortages.

“We always have plans,” he said. “It’s a changing situation. We’re going to adapt and change with it.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...