CAMDEN, NJ — Three Camden firefighters are positive for the novel coronavirus and more than 20 who were exposed have been tested, fire union officials told TAPinto Camden on Wednesday.
A Camden firefighter, a man in his 50’s and the first positive case, confirmed results with Local #788’s President Ali Cooper on March 31.
“He’s doing very well so far,” said Cooper, who’s union represents rank-and-file firefighters in the city. “The other two are pretty good. I just spoke with the one who found out most recently, and he’s also waiting on results for his family, since he has a fiance and a child.”
Sam Munoz, president of Local #2578 that also represents the 196-member force, said he believes fire administration could have been better prepared in helping to mitigate the spread of the virus within the department.
“COVID-19 was known in early February. We could have taken steps like not close companies forcing a potentially sick member going from their fire station to another,” Munoz said. “Or procuring equipment before things spiraled out of control. I think the preparedness portion has been lacking.”
Camden Mayor Frank Moran said over the phone this evening that firefighters on the front lines, like any other first responders, are expected to take all recommended precautionary steps during the outbreak for instance not come into work if they're temperature is high.
He said like all municipalities, the city has dealt with nationwide supply shortages but it has made sure firefighters have what they need — such as N95 masks and access to testing.
"If anybody is protected it's our firefighters," Moran said. "They are the most well-equipped because of the line of work they’re in. We care about every single employee in the city of Camden, and we're making sure we protect them during this pandemic."
Cooper said he was further saddened of the positive cases in the fire department on the heels of layoff notices being sent last month by the administration — the result of a restructuring plan made in collaboration with the city and unions.
How exactly the layoffs will be felt is not known but twelve positions are expected to be removed from the department.
“Two of the personnel that we know are positive so far [who are between 30 and 40 years old] are potentially on the line to be laid off so you can imagine what they’re going through,” Cooper said.
The two latter cases were confirmed this past Saturday.
Currently, none of the firefighters who were positive or required testing have had to be hospitalized.
City spokesman Vincent Basara said that the administration has worked with the fire chief and other fire officials to assure personnel have the necessary equipment.
But Pete Perez, vice president of Local #788, said supplies haven't come quick enough.
One example, he said, was thermometers.
"We’ve been requesting thermometers for at least a month to test fire officers at roll call and during shift changes, and we just got those," he said.
The unions themselves said they have also put in from in-house funds to buy such items as gloves and face cloth masks.
Other requests, such as hand sanitizer and individual N95 masks were outlined in a letter by both unions last month to Fire Chief Michael Harper but did not arrive until earlier this week.
The chief was not immediately available for comment.
“I believe there should have been more in storage from the emergency management team in the city,” Cooper said. “And as soon as you hear someone tested positive, four or five steps in place already.”
Cooper explained that to this day fire officers are being detailed to one of the other five open fire houses in the city.
“That risks cross contamination and should not be happening right now,” said Cooper, whose brother and union secretary Aaron Cooper is among the firefighters who were tested this week.
Reaching out to fire departments in other municipalities to deal with certain emergencies, a practice already common in Camden, Cooper said “will be compounded” as the department deals with depleted personnel.
“It’s imperative we conduct an assessment and limit exposures where we can,” Munoz said, noting that he has also been pushing for expedited tests for first responders. “We want officers to be able to be on the frontline where they're needed, but we don't want community spread within the department itself.”
Results for the more than 20 who were tested are expected back in the next 24 to 48 hours.