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COVID-19 slams Minnesota police, fire, ambulance services

MINNEAPOLIS — Gov. Tim Walz and public safety officials pleaded Wednesday for Minnesotans to follow coronavirus safety guidelines to protect their local police, fire and ambulance services, which have been hit hard by staff shortages amid the surge in cases.

Jay Wood, a firefighter from Plato, a town of about 300 people around 45 miles west of Minneapolis, said his 20-person all-volunteer department had to shut down last month because most members had tested positive for the virus or been exposed. One had to be hospitalized. And he said departments large and small across Minnesota face similar challenges.

“Just like we preach about fire safety, one little spark can cause a fire. And that’s exactly what happened to us,” Wood said at the governor’s briefing. “COVID-19 sparked an outbreak at the Plato Fire Department. Before we knew it, over three-quarters of our fire department had been affected in one way or another from the virus.”

So Fire Chief Jamie Schlechter was forced to take his entire department out of service. They had to rely on partners from other communities to protect about 500 households spread over 40 square miles (103.60 square kilometers), Wood said. Those departments are well-trained, and there was no disruption in service, Wood said, but people who call 911 want a fire truck to arrive quickly.

Ross Chavez, a Woodbury paramedic, told reporters that rural communities have fewer places to turn for help than metropolitan cities.

“While we do have these mutual aid agreements with our neighboring communities for when your local ambulance may not be available, it does take time to get a mutual aid ambulance to your community for your emergency,” Chavez said. “… And in critical illness or injury it can be the difference between a good outcome or a bad outcome, or even life and death.”

Fortunately, Wood said, the Plato Fire Department is back and the last two quarantined members will return Thursday.

“The biggest thing the public can do to help the fire service, and all public safety, is to follow the guidelines that the governor and the Department of Health have set out,” Wood said, echoing pleas from Walz, Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington and other officials. “Follow those guidelines with wearing a mask, social distancing, limit our gatherings. It will help keep all of us safe.”

Walz highlighted the importance of protecting emergency responders on the same day that the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association and Minnesota State Fire Department Association released a letter to him urging him to put first responders in the top priority category for the coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available.

An influential federal panel recommended Tuesday that the top priority should be for health care workers and nursing home residents. The committee will decide later who should be next in line, with possibilities including teachers, police, firefighters and workers in other essential fields.

“During the pandemic thus far, 99 of the 498 fire departments reporting across the state have had COVID-19 outbreaks,” the head of the two firefighting groups wrote. “This number is rapidly increasing and the ability for many departments to respond to emergencies is on the verge of collapsing.”

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said her understanding is that the state will be bound by the final guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The governor noted the grim news of 77 new COVID-19 deaths reported Wednesday — Minnesota’s second-highest one-day total of the pandemic. The new deaths raised the state’s total to 3,692. Minnesota highest one-day total was 101 cases last Friday, which reflected data from last Wednesday. The daily death tolls had been relatively low since then until now, but health officials have cautioned against reading too much into short-term fluctuations.