BLACKSTONE, Va. (WRIC) — At least a fifth of the Blackstone Volunteer Fire Department’s volunteers are positive with COVID-19, according to Fire Chief Dion Tomer. The organization has about 50 volunteers.
The ten positive test results are flooding in just days after the damaging ice storm that many of the members volunteered for. Several other members are still awaiting their test results.
On Tuesday, Mayor Billy Coleburn called the storm the town’s worst natural disaster in decades.
“COVID is saying we’re still here,” Coleburn told 8News on Tuesday.
Fire Chief Dion Tomer said seven of the positive tests are firefighters and the rest are support staff. He said three of the volunteers are experiencing flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache and body aches, but the others are asymptomatic.
“One of our members has received treatment through his primary care provider for his COVID symptoms,” the chief said in an email.
Tomer refused our multiple requests for an interview about the matter on Tuesday evening and throughout the day on Wednesday.
“We don’t know where it originated,” Mayor Coleburn said. “It’s dampened but not diminished what our firefighters are doing. They’ve been working the station, cooking meals for the linemen.”
The string of positive cases is raising questions about safety precautions the department had been taking, especially as food was being prepared and given out to general members of the community.
Earlier this week on Facebook, the department announced the outbreak while addressing the concerns and admitting that safety precautions weren’t always taken.
“While some may place prejudice against our lack of mask wearing, I ensure you, when it comes to ensuring your safety on our responses to your emergency, we used every precaution during this
pandemic,” the department wrote.
8News did some digging. Photos were posted on the department’s official, public Facebook account on the days before and after the storm. The photos show members inside the department with no masks. Some photos posted after the storm show volunteers preparing and distributing food with no masks or gloves on.
In recent statements, the department directly attributed the outbreak to the storm and firefighter’s sleeping arrangements. “Our station is not equipped with sleeping quarters so many members used couches, cots, and air mattresses throughout the living quarters to sleep,” Tomer told 8News.
In further explaining the lack of mask wearing on Facebook, the department wrote that volunteers treat each other like family so they don’t wear masks inside at all times.
In December, at least seven Henrico county firefighters tested positive and more than a dozen others were in quarantine. At the time, Henrico Fire officials told 8News nature of the firefighters’ jobs requires them to work, eat and live in close quarters. They admitted that their firefighters also don’t always wear masks when in the same living quarters.
Both Mayor Coleburn and Chief Tomer told 8News they’re upset that this has happened after the firefighters spent so much time volunteering to help the community.
“Our members worked diligently in response to the storm, logging over 3000 man hours with little support or resources from outside the County. While this is no excuse for the COVID outbreak that has occurred, I am sorry that the spotlight cannot be focused on the countless hours our volunteers committed to our community rather than the COVID outbreak,” Tomer wrote in an email.
BVFD said the department is “undergoing decontamination” and also adjusting protocols to ensure that all members wear N95 masks instead of surgical masks to any emergencies.
Tomer said during food distribution events, no members of the public were exposed, as outlined by CDC guidelines. The CDC defines someone “exposed” as one who was within six feet of a COVID positive person for a cumulative 15 minutes or more. However, based on what we know about this virus and how contagious it can be, you may want to consider getting tested if you recently came into contact with a firefighter.
The department does not believe this outbreak will have a direct impact on service calls; however, other local stations including Fort Pickett Fire and Rescue, Crewe Volunteer Fire, and Burkeville Fire Department are on standby.
“Once again, we are heartbroken concerning the events that have unfolded and our only desire was to ensure the safety and comfort of others during this storm,” Tomer said. “We certainly wish the best of health and safety to each and everyone.”