Seven National Park Service employees tested positive for coronavirus

One of them works at Great Smoky Mountains National Park which is in Tennessee & North Carolina

Chimney Tops 2 Fire at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
File photo of a portion of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by Bill Gabbert, June 7, 2017. During the week of March 22, 2020 one employee at the park tested positive for the coronavirus.

At least seven employees of the National Park Service have tested positive for the coronavirus, or COVID-19. During the week of March 22 the superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park said an employee there tested positive for the virus. The park on the Tennessee/North Carolina border was closed to the public on March 24, but many NPS sites remain open but have closed their visitor centers.

From the Washington Post, March 31, 2020:

In response to questions from The Washington Post, the agency said Tuesday that as of Monday, seven Park Service employees have tested positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. That figure, which had not been previously reported, doesn’t include workers in the park who are not federal employees. “The NPS is working with our contractors and concessionaires to track reported cases of their employees as well,” Stephanie Roulett, a spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

The Park Service, a division of the Interior Department, will not identify where the affected employees are to protect their identities The infections came to light in a Wednesday teleconference when Park Service Director David Vela told workers, “this week, sadly, we received word of the first confirmed cases of NPS employees with covid-19.”

At Grand Canyon National Park, which drew large crowds over the weekend and remains open, park employees were informed Monday that a resident in the park’s housing complex on the South Rim has tested positive.

Roulett said no Park Service employee at Grand Canyon has been diagnosed with covid-19. Officials in Coconino County, which includes the park, have asked it to be shut down.

Our take:

These seven NPS employees could be only the tip of the iceburg since such a small segment of the population in the United States has been tested for the virus. The essential service of fighting wildland fires cannot be carried out safely without making it mandatory for all firefighters to be tested, and on a regular basis. Symptoms of the disease only show up several days after the initial infection, but during that time the virus can spread to others. Without testing, fires may have to be left to burn, or just fought with air tankers and helicopters. Dispatching untested crews and incident management teams of firefighters when it is almost certain that some are shedding the virus, is dangerous and unethical.

In 2017 over 8,000 personnel were assigned to the Thomas Fire in southern California near Ventura.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

7 thoughts on “Seven National Park Service employees tested positive for coronavirus”

  1. “Without testing, fires may have to be left to burn, or just fought with air tankers and helicopters.”
    Come on Bill…?!?!? are you really publishing this line after all of the SOP’s, protocols, RA’s etc saying ” aircraft don’t put fires out?” I get it’s “your take,” but that is a rather poor choice in promotion… Although I know that’s what a lot are thinking.

    1. Sean, I did not say that fires could be put out with aircraft. But it might be one of the few tools we have left in our tool box until it is safe for firefighters to work together. They might be helpful in point protection to take out some of the intensity, possible saving a structure or two.

      How would you fight fire under the present conditions?

      1. Living it and doing it in Southern Arizona as we speak… as the Aviation Officer no less. No matter the course, there will be consequences in action, tactics, tools used, etc.. More so I was surprised to see that instead of your disclaimer ” aircraft don’t put fires out.” No need to argue semantics…

  2. Goes without saying, this is only the beginning of the cases that will come to light.
    Testing and continued testing will be the only way this epidemic begins to be controlled.
    But, we see how that is going so far….
    Florida is staring to get active, with at least 5 fires a day being reported. Arizona has one today, with drying and warming conditions expected.
    We all know what needs to be done, but, (Debbie Downer) will it, and can it be done to all 15,000 firefighters and associated personnel?
    If a dispatch center is forced to shut down due to personal being affected, who or how will the dispatching function work? Dispatch relies on so much technology that remotely setting up a dispatch center wouldn’t work.
    How often do we test? Every week, two weeks, after an assignment? Where and how would we be tested?
    Hopefully, these and the 1000’s of other unknowns are being hashed out by the Area Command Teams….
    I fully expect that each and every question that each of us has will be fully answered and explained as to what will and won’t happen this year. (Full stop sarcasm)
    In all seriousness, questions and concerns about how things are going to run, need to be brought up to our supervisors so they can find the answers. Maybe the concerns that you have, haven’t been addressed or brought up. Communication is as we all know, the cornerstone to how we all operate.
    If anyone from any of the Area Command teams reading this….maybe a hint of what you are working on, what you have come up with so far….give us some idea of what you will be recommending. Or at the very least, a timeframe of when you will be releasing “the report”. Time is of the essence, fire season is here and will only continue to escalate. Time is of the essence, Covid-19 is here and will only continue to escalate.
    Stay well, look out for each other….

  3. I’ll put a few suggestions out there.

    Try to keep the resources local, travelling by airlines seems to be the easiest way to catch and spread contagions. Avoid resources from heavily infected areas.

    As part of check in, your temperature will be taken and obvious symptoms noted, maybe questions of recent travels. In fact their home Dispatch sending them out should verify they are not sick, but this happens all the time.

    There does need to be guidance in demobing sick people as the desire to make money and not miss assignments is strong and being sent home will be fought.

    Problem is extra time and effort, possible lack of resources and might be invasion of privacy somehow, but Fire camps are be a easy place to get sick at.

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