Augusta Fire Department’s truck, Tower 1, is parked May 25, 2017, at the North Station #3 in Augusta. Kennebec Journal file photo by Joe Phelan

AUGUSTA — A city firefighter-paramedic recently tested positive for COVID-19, prompting at least five other staff to be placed in quarantine as a precaution.

The paramedic was hospitalized Sunday, after feeling ill, and was tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Results came back Tuesday that the individual was positive for COVID-19, according to Roger Audette, fire chief and emergency management director for the city.

The paramedic, whom Audette declined to identify by name or gender, was released from the hospital Wednesday. As of Thursday, he said, the firefighter was doing well and “resting comfortably” at home under quarantine.

Five other firefighter-paramedics, who worked with the paramedic at the city’s North Station, have been placed on a 14-day quarantine. Audette expected them to be tested as well, starting Thursday.

The absence of six firefighter-paramedics will not impact the department’s ability to respond to emergencies, Audette said. However it is, he said, expected to result in increased overtime as other members of the department’s 50-person roster of firefighter-paramedics fill the shifts the six now under quarantine would have worked.

“This will have no impact on services,” Audette said. “We are ready to respond even though there was a positive test by a firefighter. The public can still call us for help, and we will be there.”

Officials have determined that a total of three patients had limited contact with the paramedic, and they have been identified and are being contacted by the Maine Center for Disease Control.

Robert Long, a spokesperson for the Maine CDC, said individuals determined to have been in close contact with a confirmed case are given information about COVID-19 and told to quarantine for 14 days. He said Maine CDC has offered testing to all co-workers of the paramedic and others who’ve had close contact. Long said samples from those individuals were being collected and the state’s lab would do the testing.

The firefighter who tested positive for coronavirus  is the city’s first one to contract the disease.

Health care workers face higher exposure to coronavirus than the general public. As of Thursday, 286 of Maine’s 1,330 COVID-19 cases have been health care workers.

It is not yet known how, when or where the paramedic became infected, or whether that happened on the job. Audette noted city emergency workers have responded to numerous calls involving patients who may have had COVID-19. He said they also transported patients from Augusta Center for Health and Rehabilitation, where a massive outbreak of coronavirus included 48 patients, 28 staff and seven deaths.

“With that type of outbreak in the community, it may be hard to identify,” exactly when and where the paramedic was infected, Audette said. “We do have a significant outbreak in Augusta; all of our firefighters and paramedics have donned (personal protective gear) and been in close proximity to (COVID-19) patients for months now.

“Augusta firefighters have been on the front lines of this crisis from day one. These firefighters have gone into this 100% to serve the public. And they have not hesitated once to go out and help people,” he added. “They are at significant risk and do their best to protect the public and, unfortunately, one of our members has tested positive. We as a department recognize the seriousness of this development and are committed to doing everything we can to reduce the spread of this virus.”

Audette said several steps have been taken since the department learned of the positive test results. The north Augusta fire station was immediately closed and cleaned by a private contractor, per Centers for Disease Control guidelines, and an investigation is underway into with whom the positive-tested-firefighter may have had contact.

In addition, all fire department employees have been notified of the positive test; all trucks, which Audette said are already cleaned daily, have been cleaned again. And the department’s medical director, Dr. Tim Pieh, and others are working closely with Maine EMS and Maine CDC, he said.

Audette said firefighters understand there is a significant risk to their own health and safety as they work to serve the public during the unprecedented pandemic.

He said firefighter-paramedics at the North Station do not come into contact with any of the other crews at Hartford Station, which is the department’s headquarters, or other smaller stations on Bangor Street or Western Avenue, and that those crews were spread out intentionally to limit employee-to-employee contact.

The station was closed late Tuesday morning after the positive test result was received, was cleaned overnight, and reopened Wednesday morning.

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