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San Juan County, N.M., first responders under quarantine

Two firefighters were exposed to COVID-19 patient during service call

FARMINGTON – First responders are under quarantine for the next two weeks after being exposed to COVID-19, leading San Juan County to implement additional safety protocols, according to a county news release.

Two volunteer firefighters, who were not wearing masks or eye protection, were exposed to a patient during an emergency medical service call Friday. The patient later tested positive for the virus. San Juan Regional EMS staff and San Juan County sheriff’s deputies also responded to the call.

The first responders did not believe the patient had COVID-19 symptoms based on questions the dispatchers asked at the time of the call, the county said. Because the firefighters did not suspect the virus, they did not take the added precaution of wearing masks and eye protection, in accordance with the protocol at that time.

“Our service operates with volunteer responders. We cannot afford to lose these responders for two weeks because they were unaware of the risk of infection and could not take appropriate precautions,” said John Mohler, San Juan County fire chief.

The firefighters were notified later that the patient had tested positive for COVID-19 by the New Mexico Department of Health.

“It is important for citizens to notify us as soon as they can if they have tested, or believe they may be positive for COVID-19 when they call 911,” Mohler said. “We are still going to respond, it just changes how we respond to those incidents.”

The department policy required firefighters to wear masks and eye protection only if dispatchers had reason to believe a caller had been exposed to the virus. But the county changed that policy Monday.

“Firefighters on medical calls will be wearing surgical masks, eye protection and gloves. If there are concerns for a coronavirus-positive patient, the surgical mask will be upgraded to N95,” the news release said. Patients will also be asked to wear a surgical or dust mask during their treatment.

The county urged people call emergency services to be honest when answering questions from dispatchers about possible COVID-19 exposure. Additional questions have also been added by the San Juan County Communications Authority.

Additional questions include whether the patient has a temperature over 100.4 degrees; feels hot to the touch; has chills, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, a persistent cough or any other respiratory problems, such as persistent sneezing, wheezing or congestion. Dispatchers will then advise first responders to wear additional personal protective equipment, the county said.

“Patients will still receive care,” the county said. “The only difference in any call is the level of personal protective equipment worn by responders.”

As of Tuesday evening, the New Mexico Department of Health reported the state had 1,407 positive cases and 36 deaths related to COVID-19. There have been a total of 32,850 tests completed by the state lab and private labs like TriCore Reference Laboratories, LabCorp, Mayo Clinic Laboratories, Quest Diagnostics and BioReference Laboratories.

San Juan County was reporting 192 positive cases out of 1,644 completed tests and 10 deaths as of Tuesday.


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