20 Henrico firefighters sidelined after 7 test positive for COVID-19, 13 potentially exposed

Henrico County

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — Henrico’s County Division of Fire says 20 firefighters cannot work due to potential exposure of COVID-19.

The information comes after seven firefighters tested positive for the coronavirus. All seven are currently isolating a home. Positive cases and contact tracing have impacted staff at six firehouses.

“Another 13 are in quarantine after testing negative but being identified as at-risk for exposure through contact tracing,” the statement read. “The firefighters will be in quarantine until early January.”

In an interview with 8News Friday, Deputy Fire Chief Tom LaBelle said the division always has a plan to make sure staffing shortages won’t interfere with their ability to save lives. For example, they could move firefighters from slower units to where they’re needed.

Deputy Fire Chief Tom LaBelle speaks with 8News reporter Alex Thorson.

“We can take a look on any given day at units that are slower than others,” he said. “A great example is probably one of our utility units that’s utilized to fill air bottles…we would take that unit out of service. It would take us longer to fill air bottles, but we would take that firefighter and put them on a fire engine or ambulance.”

Fire Chief Alec Oughton said the affected staff primarily serve on the B-shift at six of the county’s 21 firehouses.

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“We want the public to know that no organization, large or small, is beyond the impact of COVID-19,” Oughton said. “We want to encourage everyone in our community to practice good hygiene, wear masks and practice social distancing.

LaBelle told 8News the seven COVID-positive firefighters are doing okay. “So far so good. they’re certainly not the first folks positive within our workforce. They’re doing a good job taking care of themselves. We wish them luck and we look forward to having them back,” he said.

“Our members serve selflessly every day,” Oughton added. “We are anxious to have them back with us.”  

According to the release, all county firehouses have undergone deep cleaning and disinfection, including living quarters, common areas, apparatus and equipment, since the beginning of the pandemic.

Oughton noted that the nature of the firefighters’ jobs requires them to work, eat and live in close quarters. It also requires them to face potential exposures from the public when responding to calls for service.

“Our members understand that we can’t do our jobs from a distance,” he said. “Providing the best service and care possible heightens our risk of exposure, but we are committed to serving and protecting our community.”

Henrico firefighters receive rapid testing for COVID-19 through the county’s Employee Health Services when they have symptoms and want a test. LaBelle said the division requires employees to test negative twice before allowing them back at work.

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