COVID-19 Hits Abilene's First Responders Hard
Some four dozen firefighters have tested positive for COVID-19 in Abilene. That’s a big deal in a department that’s already short-staffed, with 189 members.
Tuesday, the Abilene/Taylor County Public Health District said there were 277 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in its jurisdiction. About a quarter of the total – 62 cases – were among the very people who have been fighting against the spread of the coronavirus for the City of Abilene.
On Monday, during his daily COVID-19 briefing, Abilene Police Chief Stan Standridge expressed gratitude that his department was healthy.
“We have had numerous employees tested. But as of this morning, Monday morning, we are still at zero…So, very thankful for that,” he said.
But later that day, three Abilene police officers received positive test results. They had all been part of the same call for service last week. By Tuesday afternoon, the police department’s number had grown to 11, in a force of 211 officers. Officials say they do have contingency plans in case more officers become infected.
The Abilene Fire Department has been hit even harder. The department is already nine firefighters short of full staffing. Now, COVID-19 has put just over a quarter of the department in quarantine because they’ve tested positive for the virus. That group includes Chief Cande Flores.
The department has had to suspend its Virus Response Unit, established in March to respond to COVID-19-related calls. Early planning also included preparing for the possibility of multiple cases of the virus in the department, and in a statement, officials expressed confidence in the fire department’s ability to meet the needs of the public while protecting firefighters and local citizens.
The coronavirus is also taking out some of the folks leading the city’s response to COVID-19. Annette Lerma is health director for the Abilene/Taylor County Public Health District. She’s scheduled to leave quarantine Wednesday, after previously come down with the virus. She said she had a fairly mild case.
“It [has] actually not been terrible for me,” Lerma said. “And I’m very thankful for that. But I think it’s important that we let people know that it’s not anything to be ashamed of. I keep saying over and over again that we are all at risk. And if you’re continuing to have to work, and you go out, and you still have to go to the grocery store, we’re all at risk.”
Nine other staff members at the health district also came down with the virus, and the agency had to close its doors. Lerma said she doesn’t know when they’ll be able to reopen.
It was as the team working on the COVID-19 response continued to meet that the door may have been opened for spread of the virus, Lerma said There are two members of the city’s Emergency Management division – both have tested positive. City Manager Robert Hanna is self-isolating after exposure to other patients. He has not yet reported any symptoms, and hasn’t been tested.
A recent analysis by The New York Times put Abilene on a list of potential “next hot spots”. Abilene already ranks 15th on a list of cities with the highest average daily growth rates in cases within the U.S. Abilene could quickly look like a hot spot if more tests were conducted.
“I’ll say we don’t have enough, and we do have to try to be prudent with how we screen people to get testing,” Lerma said. “Ideally you’d have enough tests to be able to just kind of screen,”
Lerma said Abilene’s emergency management coordinator has officially requested more tests. Abilene has also asked the state to set up a mobile drive-through testing site. So far officials are still waiting for a response.
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