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Coronavirus cases seep into the ranks of Newport Beach first responders

A city lifeguard keeps an eye on the few visitors to the beach next to the Balboa Pier in Newport Beach on May 6.
A city lifeguard keeps an eye on the few visitors to the beach next to the Balboa Pier in Newport Beach on May 6.
(Raul Roa / Times Community News)

The Newport Beach Fire Department is feeling the effect of the coronavirus among its own ranks.

Ten firefighters and 11 lifeguards had tested positive for the virus, Fire Chief Jeff Boyles confirmed Friday.

Boyles said the virus apparently broke through to his crews through community spread and not while directly treating coronavirus patients. He said all fire stations and trucks remain staffed, and cleaning protocols have been tweaked. Newport Beach Fire is not sending crews to out-of-county wildland fires.

“We have been very vigilant when we go on calls with what we know to be sick people, but people have lives outside of work,” Boyles told the City Council at its last meeting on July 14.

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An additional 30 firefighters and 21 lifeguards have quarantined at some point in July, Boyles said Friday. Going into this weekend, 11 lifeguards — four positive and seven in quarantine — were off duty. Four firefighters — all recovering after testing positive, none left in quarantine — were away from work.

“Fortunately, not all of them were off at the same time so we were able to maintain our staffing levels in the fire stations, lifeguard towers and junior lifeguard program,” Boyles said. “It was a balancing act for a small window of time in order to accomplish that.”

Overall, Orange County reported more than 33,900 coronavirus cases and 560 related deaths as of Saturday, with 685 COVID-19 patients in county hospitals.

Coronavirus among the county’s lifeguard ranks was a key part of Newport’s decision to make the unprecedented decision to close beaches on the Fourth of July, historically the summer peak for visitors. Leading up to the holiday, two lifeguards had tested positive and more than 20 were being quarantined.

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Fire and lifeguard officials said they had enough staff for the big weekend, but a cautious City Council voted for the hard closure to keep the remaining guards from having to do more with less.

Boyles said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and county health officials say first responders can work until they are symptomatic if they have been exposed, but Newport has been aggressive with its contact tracing and quarantining.

“The majority of those who tested positive were already identified as exposed and were in quarantine when their test results came back positive,” Boyles said. “That tells us that we theoretically prevented them from working and causing an even greater outbreak.”

The infected individuals come from a corps of about 120 firefighters, 50 lifeguard reservists, 55 junior guards and 95 in lifeguard operations.


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