PATERSON, NJ - For weeks, first responders have been racing across Paterson to try and save lives in one of the hardest hit cities in the state by the COVID-19 outbreak. During the height of the pandemic in early April, Paterson Fire Department’s EMTs saw about 180 confirmed cases daily.

“I don’t think initially people realized how serious it was here,” said Paterson firefighter and FMBA Local 2 President Kyle Hughes. Over the past three months, Hughes said “a lot of the focus was on New York City,” where more than 200,000 residents tested positive and 16,000 died. 

But Paterson – which has the highest COVID-19 case rate of any New Jersey city with a population over 100,000 residents, “was always a few weeks behind” New York, he said. Each shift, EMTs put themselves into constant danger, responding to the homes of residents potentially sick with coronavirus.

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At every call, they had to suit up with the proper protective equipment and practice social distancing, then decontaminate after, only to don the gear all over again to head back out as more calls flooded in.

At the end of shifts, many EMTs – out of fear they’d infect their loved ones – quarantined themselves from families, either at hotels or in separate areas of their houses. “There was nothing routine or normal about this,” said Hughes. “It’s hard to keep up fighting an unknown enemy and at the end of the day, it weighs on your mind.”

“Keeping spirits high was challenging,” he said. “But that’s what we do – we face challenges, that’s our job. We were chosen to do a profession and you’re going to have your challenges. We always adapt and figure out how to overcome them.” 

Paterson Fire Chief Brian McDermott said, “There’s a lot of stress – of going into a home of a confirmed positive COVID-19 case, the stress of doing CPR on someone who is not going to make it or going on a DOA call.”

In Paterson, New Jersey’s third largest city, more than 6,300 residents, including McDermott and Mayor Andre Sayegh, have contracted coronavirus and 366 people have died.

With 148,000 people living across the city’s eight-square mile radius, at least according to the 2010 census, Paterson’s density made it vulnerable to the spread. Its population of minorities and low-income families also made it more likely to bear the brunt of the outbreak.

But, the city is starting to bounce back. 

On Saturday, the fire department received only one virus-related call, according to McDermott. 

“It’s gotten exponentially better,” said McDermott, who believes increased and continued social distancing efforts by the public, along with the virus working its way through the population, helped lower the curve.

He added, “We’re now at a point where we’re hoping to have one day without any COVID calls.”


Enhanced Safety Measures

Though the virus walloped Paterson, the fire department only saw 36 firefighters, less than 10 percent of its members, test positive for coronavirus. In April, firefighters and police officers in the city underwent testing, which Hughes called “a big plus,” because it enabled the department “to get a baseline of where we were.”

Ultimately, around 85 firefighters were quarantined and then able to get back to work, healthy and ready to help Paterson, the chief said. 

McDermott attributes the “very, very low number” to a more-than-adequate supply of personal protective equipment and supplies, as well as firefighters “being responsible” off-duty when it came to social distancing and safety measures. 

While working, the department required temperature checks and increased decontamination procedures. Firefighters were also required to wear masks, as well as practice social distancing, within firehouses.

Shortages of personal protective gear, lack of testing and exposure to the virus was a serious concern for first responders, healthcare workers and other essential workers in many parts of the country, but it was never an issue in Paterson, thanks to careful planning.

Hughes believes securing the needed gear, “excellent communication” between the unions, administration and city during an ever-evolving situation and implementing safety protocols “that went above and beyond even what the government recommends” was key.

“I think because of the professionalism of our firefighters and EMTs, we saved a lot of lives,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s our job to help people – and we showed up and did it tremendously. I believe we became a model for other departments in the state. You’d have to search far and wide to find a more professional and prepared group of people.”

Making “the right moves” to fight the outbreak, McDermott said, “has been a collective effort” by various departments in the city, as well as the administration.

Paterson’s contact tracing program, one of the first in the state, is continuing its work to identify who should be isolated and who may be infected. And, the city is in the midst of rolling out a six-phase plan to expand testing for residents. 

The fire department also received help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which provided EMTs to help the city’s response.

Another helpful partnership, McDermott said, is a recently launched initiative with St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center that allowed for EMTs to contact doctors via FaceTime while with patients suspected of having COVID-19 in order to perform a clinical assessment.

“It was part of an effort to reduce the density of patients at the hospital,” he said. “We kept patients informed of what the situation was at the hospital and let them make the decision, but if a doctor could recommend someone stay home and treat themselves there, it could help avoid an un-needed trip to the emergency room.”

And, the Front Line Appreciation Group of Greater Wayne (FLAG), a volunteer group dedicated to providing meals to frontline workers while keeping local restaurants in business, included Paterson firefighters in its efforts, giving them lunches four days a week.

McDermott said, “Firefighters generally make our own food, but with the heavy call volume, there wasn’t a lot of time to stop. When they come in and lunch is waiting for them, it is a huge, huge help.”

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