A Tragic First for Austin (TX) Fire: 20-Year Veteran Dies of COVID-19 Complications

Heather Osbourne

Austin American-Statesman

(MCT)

An Austin firefighter who battled blazes for two decades died over the weekend of complications linked to COVID-19. It was the third coronavirus-related death of an Austin first responder in a week and the first for the Fire Department since the start of the pandemic.

Authorities on Monday shared the news of Rodney “Rod” Kelley‘s death Sunday on Twitter, asking the community to “keep his family, friends, and crew in your thoughts and prayers.” Kelley was 56, according to the Fire Department.

More: Travis County COVID-19 vaccine tracker: 60% of people fully vaccinated

Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks on Monday said Kelley was an extremely hard worker who loved serving the public, adding that he first came into the department as a cadet in 2001 and served at Airport Rescue Firefighting on Firehouse Road before his illness.

“Our hearts are very heavy and saddened by the loss of Rod Kelley,” Nicks said. “Firefighter Kelley was very respected by his firefighter peers.

“What makes this every more tragic is that this loss is caused by COVID, which is very hard for us to come to terms with. He’s a young firefighter who left us way too soon, and he will be very sorely missed.”

Kelley’s death was announced less than a week after two Austin police officers — senior police officer Randolph Boyd and senior Sgt. Steve Urias — died of COVID-19 in a span of two days. Those deaths were the first coronavirus-related ones for Austin police since the pandemic hit Austin nearly 18 months ago.

More: Estimated Austin police vaccination lags behind Travis County rate

Austin police said dozens of personnel were off the streets last week while they received treatment or recovered from the coronavirus. The American-Statesman asked the Fire Department how many firefighters were confirmed to have COVID-19 as of Monday, but it did not immediately provide that information.

Nicks said Monday that about 24 firefighters were currently confirmed to have COVID-19.

The deaths of the three public servants come as Austin and Travis County over the weekend appeared to plateau or slightly improve after the area’s record-setting surge in cases and hospitalizations over the past several weeks.

Austin Public Health and Travis County health leaders reported Monday that 604 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 — the lowest number of inpatients in two weeks and an improvement over the pandemic record high of 653 patients set last week.

As many as 220 people were in area ICUs for COVID-19. That number hit a pandemic record high of 237 earlier this month.

More: Two Austin officers die of COVID-19, a tragic first among department’s ranks during pandemic

The number of ventilator patients, however, increased to a pandemic record of 174 on Sunday. On Monday, 170 patients were using the machines, compared with 161 reported Friday.

Yet the county recorded only 55 new hospital admissions for COVID-19, which lowered the rolling seven-day average that Austin Public Health uses to help determine how the most medically vulnerable can protect against the coronavirus. Monday’s average of 72 was the lowest it’s been in about three weeks.

Meanwhile, the Texas Department of State Health Services’ 11-county Central Texas region that includes Austin metro area continued to see a critical shortage in available staffed ICU beds, dropping from seven Friday to two Monday. The region serves 2.3 million residents in Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop, Blanco, Burnet, Caldwell, Fayette, Lee, Llano and San Saba counties.

State data on Monday also showed that a total of 78.3% of Travis County residents who are 12 years or older have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Of those, 67.1% are fully vaccinated.

American-Statesman investigative reporter Tony Plohetski contributed to this article.

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