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Coronavirus cases seep into Newport Beach first responder ranks

A lifeguard keeps an eye on a mostly empty beach next to the Balboa Pier in Newport Beach.
A city lifeguard keeps an eye on the few visitors to the beach next to the Balboa Pier in Newport Beach on May 6, 2020.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

COVID-19 has further infiltrated the Newport Beach Fire Department, affecting firefighters and more lifeguards.

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

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.

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.”

Coronavirus among the 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.

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 Centers for Disease Control 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 corps of about 120 firefighters, 95 in lifeguard operations, 55 in junior guards and 50 lifeguard reservists.

Spokeswoman Catherine Jun said the testing of employees suspected of being infected began on March 17, one day after city officials declared a local emergency. County cases of the virus rose Thursday by 905.

Orange County had 710 new COVID-19 cases and 13 newly reported deaths Friday, bringing the totals to 33,358 cases and 556 related fatalities. Area hospitals had 652 patients, 215 in intensive care units. Estimated recoveries from infection are now at 18,007.

In key state monitoring metrics, testing positivity in the county is at 12.7%, ICU bed availability is at 32%, and the change in the three-day average of hospitalized patients is at 0.5%. Although generally decreasing over the past several days, testing positivity remains high enough to keep Orange County on the state’s watchlist. The other metrics satisfy state standards.

Here are the latest cumulative case counts and deaths for select cities:

  • Santa Ana: 6,272 cases; 143 deaths
  • Anaheim: 5,708 cases; 137 deaths
  • Huntington Beach: 1,580 cases; 44 deaths
  • Irvine: 1,080 cases; nine deaths
  • Costa Mesa: 1,066 cases; seven deaths
  • Newport Beach: 766 cases; five deaths
  • Fountain Valley: 337 cases; eight deaths
  • Laguna Beach: 122 cases; fewer than five deaths

Updated figures are posted daily at occovid19.ochealthinfo.com/coronavirus-in-oc.

For information on getting tested, visit occovid19.ochealthinfo.com/covid-19-testing.

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