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With 8 First Responders Self-Isolating, Covington Calls for More Testing

Six Covington police officers and two firefighters are self-isolating at home either because they showed flu-like symptoms or lived with family members who who showed such symptoms, the city announced on Tuesday.

The city is calling for faster access to testing and better personal protective equipment (PPE) for first responders, amid the coronavirus/COVID-19 global pandemic.

It is recommended by federal, state, and local health officials for everyone who displays mild symptoms to self-isolate in order to preserve the limited numbers of COVID-19 tests for those showing stronger symptoms.

"We've been vocal to anybody who will listen about the need for improvements in these areas," Covington Mayor Joe Meyer said in a news release. "I can't say enough good things about the incredible job our police officers and firefighters are doing to protect the public, but they in turn need us to stand up for them."

Four of the Covington first responders who showed symptoms were tested, but don't have their results yet.

"We've been waiting since March 21st to get one officer's test results back," Police Chief Rob Nader said. "That's an incredibly long time to wait."

Given the uncertainty of testing, state directives on so-called "social distancing" have created anxieties on situations ranging from arrests to training, he said.

On Tuesday, the City of Covington said in a news release that it was informed that St. Elizabeth Healthcare was implementing a new program that will give priority to first responders by immediately testing those who show flu-like symptoms and that will speed the turnaround on those tests. Rather than send the diagnostic tests to a commercial lab with a turnaround of seven to nine days, St. Elizabeth's Emergency Medical Unit will now send them to a lab with a 24- to 48-hour turnaround.

But the new policy only tests firefighters and police officers with active symptoms. Meyer and Covington's police and fire chiefs said first responders who have been exposed but do not yet have symptoms also need to be tested.

Furthermore, in cases when family members show flu-like symptoms, they need to be tested and cleared so the first responders can return to work instead of they themselves then being forced to self-isolate.

"This new policy is a step in the right direction, but it's still not complete," Meyer said. "Improved and comprehensive testing is absolutely essential to our ability to both keep our First Responders safe and manage them effectively."

Fire Chief Mark Pierce echoed that thought.

"It gets very complicated," he said. "In order to protect people, we need to be able to fully staff. But we don't want people to come to work sick. However, if they're home self-isolating, and it's been seven days, that's seven days of not knowing - for them, for their families, and for us."

The new program occurs as Gov. Andy Beshear announced 114 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 statewide, including seven more coronavirus-related deaths. Those bring the state totals to 594 cases and 17 deaths.

"I know that we will be announcing more," Beshear said during his daily 5 p.m. press conference on the impact of the pandemic on Kentucky and the state's response.

In Northern Kentucky, there are 41 total confirmed cases. Seven people have died locally, all of whom had other underlying health issues.

In Covington and elsewhere, uncertainty about how long the pandemic will last is raising concerns about supplies of personal protective equipment, such as masks, gloves, gowns, disinfectant, and hand sanitizer.

Covington's police and fire departments - as well as its public works department and other public-facing offices - have struggled to get the supplies they will need over the long haul to protect themselves and the public from the virus, and - in some cases - they need right now.

It's difficult to get a firm handle on the situation for a number of reasons, the city said:

  • Given unknowns about daily usage, about how big the coming spike in cases will be, and about how long COVID-19 will be a global crisis, how much PPE is needed is difficult to measure and project.
  • Supply houses can't guarantee when they'll be able to fill orders, and shipments from federal sources -- despite reports - is sporadic and sometimes in questionable shape. 

For example, gowns delivered recently had been opened, removed and put back into their packaging, so firefighters didn't know if they were contaminated, Pierce said. Furthermore, many of the gloves delivered were too small for use by grown men. And the most recent delivery of N-95 masks had dry-rotted elastic bands and a video on how to use a hole-punch and rubber bands to fix them.

"We're making do on a day-to-day basis, but there is significant concern long term about whether we'll be able to stretch our supplies," he said.

Meanwhile, both departments are making do with creativity and with the generous help of the private sector.

For example, a bourbon distillery downstate made a low-cost substitute for a disinfectant spray that can be used to wipe equipment and vehicles, Pierce said. Firefighters have also rigged a compressed air cylinder with a paint gun to create a way of disinfecting Tyvek suits after wearers came in contact with someone who might have the virus.

Last week, the City of Covington's Economic Development Department sent an email asking for donations from local businesses, and that response is trickling in. Several jugs of rub-on hand sanitizer was used to fill smaller bottles and pressed into immediate use by police officers and Public Works.

"We appreciate everybody who has generously donated their supplies or helped in some way," Nader said. "We need sanitizer, disinfectant and the N-95 masks, and our supplies are dwindling every day."

But both Nader and Pierce said their departments have a long reputation for overcoming challenges.

"We don't want the general public to think that we can't go out and do the job, because we are and we will," Pierce said. "Morale is good, and firefighters are doing their job. But we're very concerned about the unknown."

-Staff report