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Orange County firefighters under isolation after possible coronavirus contact

Travelers wear masks at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport in January.
Travelers wear masks at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport in January.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Orange County Fire Authority firefighters from Engine Company 20 have been placed in isolation “out of an abundance of caution” after they encountered a patient who had traveled internationally and was showing symptoms similar to coronavirus, authorities said Monday.

The crew members, who were placed in isolation Saturday, will remain at a fire station in Irvine until the patient’s test results come back, said Colleen Windsor, the Orange County Fire Authority’s director of communications.

This isn’t the first time first responders have been exposed the disease. In Seattle, more than 25 firefighters have been quarantined after visiting a nursing home that is at the center of a coronavirus outbreak, according to the International Assn. of Fire Fighters.

Paul Biddinger, director of emergency preparedness research at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that first responders such as firefighters need to remember to take basic measures such as washing their hands and avoiding touching their face.

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“I understand when you’re out on an ambulance how hard it is to talk about hand hygiene or protection, but it’s extremely important,” Biddinger said in a forum Monday hosted by Harvard’s public health school and broadcast online.

Biddinger, who said he began his career working in emergency medical services, said that protocols for when to wear a mask or a gown will vary depending on where people are based. Local health officials need to collaborate with firefighters and other first responders to determine when wearing such gear is appropriate, he said.

“If we do it too much, if we wear it for every case, we will run out, to be blunt,” he said. “If we don’t do it enough, we put our first responders at risk.”

There has been only one case of coronavirus in Orange County — reported more than a month ago — and it was not community-spread but occurred in a traveler from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

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Orange County officials successfully fought a federal proposal to place coronavirus patients at the Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa. On Friday, federal officials said they have dropped those plans.

On Wednesday, Orange County declared a local health emergency in response to COVID-19.


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