CDC changes COVID-19 guidelines for testing firefighters

First responders with symptoms are now in the high-priority category

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has added the nation’s first responders to the list of those eligible for high priority COVID-19 testing. But, they have to already have symptoms.

Earlier this month, Congressman Neguse (CO) led a bipartisan letter, with the support of 33 members of Congress, to Vice President Mike Pence and CDC Director Robert Redfield requesting first responder priority.  First responders who show symptoms are now eligible for high-priority testing, joining hospitalized patients, healthcare workers, and workers and residents in congregated facilities or long-term care facilities.

On April 17 Congressman Neguse with the support of Congressman John Curtis (UT) introduced the Wildfire and Community Health Response Act of 2020, bipartisan legislation aimed at supporting the health of firefighters and emergency response teams and mitigating the impact of wildfires on vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill directs the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of the Interior to jointly report to Congress on their efforts to mitigate wildfire risk, as wildfire smoke can have a severe impact on the respiratory health of nearby populations. The report must also identify the steps being taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 among emergency response personnel. Additionally, the report shall offer recommendations from the Secretaries as to what Federal support is required to successfully support these activities.

Our take:

This action by the CDC, while it is a small step in the right direction, is not adequate to protect the health and safety of our firefighters and other first responders. All of them need to be tested, with or without symptoms, at regular intervals.

If they are already symptomatic, it means there may have been a failure at some point. It’s like closing the barn door AFTER the horse escapes. In addition, contact tracing for those testing positive should be automatic. If the CDC or the states will not do it, the Forest Service and Department of the Interior need to implement their own testing and contact tracing programs for firefighters.

I wrote on March 19 about the need for testing in an article titled “Fighting fires during a pandemic”:

All firefighters need to be tested for the virus at regular intervals

If firefighting crews have to isolated and put on the sidelines because one member develops COVID-19 symptoms, it is likely that they had already been shedding the virus for days, possibly infecting others.

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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.

4 thoughts on “CDC changes COVID-19 guidelines for testing firefighters”

  1. Exactly Bill. Everyone needs to be tested BEFORE they can go out, it’s crazy otherwise. Even if someone does test positive on a crew, all crew members need to be tested, AND the crew should be able to still go out even if they don’t meet the number required to meet the national standards.

    Our family has been talking about this since January. Let’s hope, they eventually come to the same decision, if they’ve finally put First Responders on this list, after enough complaints or unfortunate cases, they’ll realize ALL First Responders need to be tested.

  2. Where are the Area Command teams in their planning with this? Where is the Director of fire in DC with this? Where is CAL Fire and the CDC program with this? Strangely quiet.

  3. My question would be if everyone on the Crew/Fire test Negative be 20 people or 100 and someone Contracts COVID -19 who is Responsible……I predict many Lawsuits.

  4. In most federal crews I anticipate us getting nothing. We’re anticipating not having enough cleaning supplies to clean trucks everyday. You’re dreaming if you think there will be regular testing of wildland firefighters.

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