Responders

Timothy Duffer, assistant chief of the Danville Fire Department, shows the industrial washing machine on March 30 used to sanitize turnout gearincluding heavy coats, trousers and boots used by firefighters to protect from heat.

Area first responders are taking extra precautions to protect themselves from contracting or spreading the coronavirus, especially as they are dealing with the public frequently.

The Danville Fire Department is now screening firefighters for a fever and other symptoms of the coronavirus three times during their shifts. Deep cleanings, which used to happen just on Saturdays, are happening every day.

“Saturday was washout day… it’s almost now like we’re cleaning like it’s Saturday everyday,” said Tim Duffer, deputy emergency coordinator for Danville.

Members of the Danville Fire Department and Danville Life Saving Crew have come into contact with at least two positive cases of COVID-19, Duffer said, but that number could easily jump up next week when more test results come in.

In Pittsylvania County, a volunteer crew came into contact with one case of COVID-19, the diseased caused by the coronavirus.

“We did have a crew that did and they took the proper precautions,” said Chris Slemp, Pittsylvania County public safety director. “They knew that going into it.”

The most recent data from the Virginia Department of Health shows that 12 people have tested positive for the virus in Danville, and another two were diagnosed in Pittsylvania County. One of those in the county was a Gretna man who died at a hospital in North Carolina.

At the Danville Life Saving Crew, volunteers and employees who have come into contact with a potential case are screened twice daily for a fever or other symptoms, including on their days off. Vehicles are decontaminated at the conclusion of every call, “even if it’s just a stubbed toe,” said Bryan Fox, executive director of the Danville Life Saving Crew.

Even amid a national shortage, first responders in Danville and Pittsylvania County have sufficient personal protection equipment — including gloves and masks — at least for now.

“We have shared resources back and forth during this,” Fox said.

“We’re in good shape for the short term,” Slemp said. “The long term is what I’m worried about.”

In a virtual press conference on Wednesday, Alan Larson, Sovah Health president and Sovah Health-Danville CEO, said that both hospitals — Danville and Martinsville — have sufficient personal protection equipment and ventilators to deal with the current load, as well as “access to more ventilators if we need them.”

In Lynchburg, two fire stations were forced to close for a few days this week after one firefighter tested positive for COVID-19 and two others are waiting test results after coming into contact with someone who later tested positive.

“That’s why we’re trying to be really really proactive on this," Fox said.

Dispatchers in 911 centers for both the city and the county ask a series of screening questions so that first responders can be prepared and fully protected if the person is showing any symptoms. Both centers have also seen a drop in call volume as less people venture out and people are more wary of hospitals, Fox said.

In Pittsylvania County, where the majority of the EMS first responders are volunteers, consistent screening can be a challenge, Slemp said.

“One of the issues you have is some agencies during the day may not have a set crew,” he said.

So far, officers from the Danville Police Department have not come into contact with anyone who has tested positive for the coronavirus, said spokesperson Lt. Richard Chivvis.

Health organizations have repeatedly warned that this virus will continue to spread and get worse, even with the current social distancing guidelines and restrictions that have already been put in place.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it: there will be more cases,” Scott Spillmann, director of the Pittsylvania-Danville Health District, said during a virtual press conference on Wednesday afternoon. “Some people, unfortunately, will have to be in the hospitals. Some on ventilators. And some, I’m sad to say, will not make it.”

Public safety officials are attempting to identify locations where drive-thru testing centers could be set up in both Danville and Pittsylvania County. Martinsville Speedway is being converted into a drive-thru testing location.

At the Danville Fire Department, employees wash their uniforms at the stations and don’t wear them home as a way to ensure that “they’re not taking it home to their families, just in case,” Duffer said. Several employees there have begun to develop contingency plans for staying away from their family in the event that they contracted the virus or came into contact with someone who had it.

“Mentally it’s wearing on all of our volunteers… it’s not an easy thing knowing that you might get exposed to this and might take it back to your family,” Slemp said.

Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.

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