Health & Safety

What Firefighters and EMS Providers Need to Know about COVID-19

The CDC has developed comprehensive COVID-19 guidance for EMS providers and other first responders. (Photo/Los Angeles County Fire Department)

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a respiratory illness caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2. Symptoms often include a fever, cough, or shortness of breath. The virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet), through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks.

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Some recent studies have suggested that COVID-19 may be spread by people who are not showing symptoms. It may be possible that people can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or eyes. However, this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.

As a firefighter or EMS worker providing medical treatment and transport of ill patients, how can I protect myself and others?

  • Do not work if you are sick. If you develop a fever or symptoms such as cough or shortness of breath, call your healthcare provider for medical advice and guidance before visiting their office. Follow your department’s return-to-work policy after recovering from the illness.
  • Contact your supervisor and occupational health program immediately if you are exposed to a patient with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 when you are not wearing recommended personal protective equipment (PPE). Complete any occupational exposure report forms required by your organization.
    • If you are permitted to continue working, take additional precautions, including wearing a facemask and monitoring for symptoms and fever for 14 days after you were exposed to the patient.
  • Wear the following PPE for all patient interactions where COVID-19 is suspected or confirmed:
    • Fit tested NIOSH-approved N95 or higher level respirator, or a facemask if a respirator is not available
      • N95 respirators or respirators that offer a higher level of protection should be used instead of a facemask when you are performing or present for an aerosol-generating procedure.
      • If you use a respirator, you must be clean-shaven because facial hair can cause respirators to leak around the face seal.
    • A single pair of disposable examination gloves
    • Eye protection, such as face shield or goggles, unless you are wearing a full-face respirator
    • Gown or coveralls
  • If your PPE becomes grossly contaminated or compromised (e.g., torn), discard and replace your PPE in accordance with the policies and procedures of your organization.
  • Follow CDC guidance if you are reusing, reprocessing, and storing PPE.
  • Have patients wear facemasks or cloth face coverings for source control, if they can tolerate it.
  • Limit the number of providers in the patient compartment to minimize possible exposures.
  • Use EPA-registered hospital-grade disinfectantsexternal icon to disinfect non-porous surfaces of ambulances, gurneys, clipboards, radios, and other frequently touched surfaces or equipment according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Non-porous surfaces of PPE such as powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) should be cleaned and disinfected in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendation.
  • Launder reusable personal protective clothing (e.g., uniforms) or other porous materials according to the manufacturer’s recommendations if they become contaminated.
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizers with greater than 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol, or wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds when soap and water are available. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.

What steps should employers of firefighter and EMS personnel take?

— Source: CDC