PATERSON, NJ - As New Jersey gradually reopens from its shutdown, local emergency services won’t be taking their guards down anytime soon – especially with growing predictions of a COVID-19 resurgence this fall or winter.

Since the first cases were reported in early March, Hughes said the department has built up “a good strong base of how to handle it” and “is keeping an eye on any spikes.”

“It’s important to open things up. We want to start to enjoy life again, but until we find a vaccine or cure, we need to just play it safe for a while, take every precaution and follow the rules,” Hughes said.

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“We have to reopen,” McDermott said. 

If New Jersey remains under its shelter-in-place order, McDermott said he’s concerned there will be a rise in suicides, residents losing their homes and further job losses. “There’s a ying and a yang,” he said. “If there are measures in place to prevent the spread of the virus, I’m all for it.”

Part 1: When Coronavirus Gripped Their City Paterson Fire Answered the Call

Going forward, the city will keep track of virus-related EMS calls and analyze them to determine if any trends emerge, so first responders know “where to ramp up our efforts, where to focus on and where it’s coming from,” McDermott said.

The fire department will also continue acquiring supplies and personal protective equipment, similar to what it did before the onset of the current pandemic.

Well before COVID-19 arrived in the U.S., McDermott was already planning for the worst, though. Back in 2014, McDermott was serving as Paterson’s Deputy Fire Chief when New Jersey had its Ebola scare, which showed him the importance of preparation.

As reports grew of the coronavirus outbreak in Asia last winter, McDermott, along with Deputy Fire Chief Matthew Hyman and other fire officers, began inventorying the city’s critical safety gear and then ordered even more to ensure there was more than enough to protect the department’s 275 members. 

They also made sure they have enough supplies to share with police, shelter workers and elderly residents at senior homes and local housing development. Even while preparing for the unexpected earlier this year, McDermott said he never imagined the outbreak would grow as widespread as it did.

“I don’t think it was fathomable for anyone,” he said. ‘We haven’t really had the time to process’

Once the pandemic wanes – and first responders begin to take stock of their experiences over the past three months – mental health support will be crucial.

Stress, death counts, gear shortages, workloads and the fear of contracting the virus and bringing it home are taking a toll on frontline workers, according to a newly-released study. About 50 percent showed signs of depression, 45 percent reported anxiety and 72 percent had some form of psychological distress. 

Up until now, “life has been a moving target,” Hughes said, “but now I think a lot of that will become a reality.”

At the department, “everyone lost someone,” Hughes said, whether it was a family member, friend or neighbor and many haven’t really “had the time to process and grieve” those losses.

“We lost a Passaic firefighter and a Paterson police officer and we couldn’t do what we normally do – we couldn’t celebrate their heroism and their lives,” he said, adding that the loss of their "brother" Gabe Chavez hit them especially hard.

Hughes said they’ll work to make sure their firefighters can get access to any resources needed if they’re struggling.

“I don’t think any person who has been on the frontlines of this is taking it for granted anytime soon,” he said. “I’m proud of each and every member I represent and proud of all the frontline workers who got us through this.”

“Even in a scary time, everyone handled it with professionalism and incredible bravery,” Hughes said.

McDermott said he’s also proud of the department, saying “They’ve done an amazing job” in the face of such a mentally and physically draining battle.

Even in the midst of the crisis, the department is still doing its best to brighten the days of Patersonians. To help residents celebrate milestones, such as birthdays and graduations, firefighters have been performing drive-bys with plenty of fanfare, including sirens and flashing lights. 

“We like being involved in that,” McDermott said, “We get to go out, be part of the community and ease the pain.”

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