ST. PAUL — First responders on Wednesday, Dec. 2, called on Minnesotans to follow state guidelines aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus so they can continue responding to police, fire and medical emergency calls.
Representatives from various emergency response organizations at a news conference at the Capitol complex said they'd been seriously restricted as COVID-19 continued to spread around the state and as first responders were sickened or required to quarantine following possible exposure.
Almost 20% of Minnesota fire departments reported major COVID-19 outbreaks, Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, said, and at least one department had to cease service after the 20-person volunteer department was hit by the disease.
And that trend continued across police departments and emergency medical response units that work closely with people in the community, Harrington said. In Duluth, four first responders on a late-night medical call had to be quarantined after possible exposure and at one time, 29 police department staff there were quarantined and 14 tested positive for COVID-19.
"I'm hearing literally every day from police departments, sheriffs' departments and fire departments that are having COVID impact their ability to do the right thing and to protect the public," Harrington said. "No matter how much we take precautions, it will not take very much for us to have a fire department, or a police department or an EMS group that may well be out of service and unable to help the public if we don't do the right things with COVID."
Jay Chavez, a paramedic, said he and his colleagues had taken additional steps to protect themselves and patients, but they needed people to heed public health guidance to allow them to keep working with COVID-19 patients and those experiencing injuries or other illnesses.
"We've made sacrifices and we can now just start to see some of the light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine on the horizon, but we're not there yet," Chavez said. "Please help my colleagues and me to be there for those who need us, especially during this holiday season, and during these trying times."
The push to encourage Minnesotans to continue wearing masks, remaining socially distant and abiding by other public health guidance comes as state officials on Wednesday reported the second-highest number of new fatalities from the illness in one day since the pandemic took hold.
The Minnesota Department of Health reported 5,192 more Minnesotans had been sickened with COVID-19 and 77 had perished from the illness, bringing the total number of people in the state to die from the disease to 3,692.
The deaths reported were of Minnesotans ranging in age from their late 30s to more than 100 years old. And 44 were residents of long-term care or assisted living facilities, while 32 lived in private residences and one lived in a group home.
Across the state, agencies have had to change schedules, expand overtime for those still able to work and change protocols to adapt to COVID-19 and its effect on their ranks, representatives said.
“Just like we preach with fire safety, one little spark can start a fire and that’s what happened with us. COVID-19 sparked an outbreak at the Plato Fire Department,” Plato Fire Department Firefighter and former Chief Jay Wood said. The department had to temporarily cease service and rely on mutual aid partners after three-quarters of the department were affected.
Minnesota also climbed to the top-in-the-nation spot for the most COVID-19 cases reported per 100,000 in the last seven days, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. The CDC reported that an average of 107.6 per 100,000 people were reported to be positive for the illness in the state each day in the last week.
Minnesota moved past neighbors North Dakota and South Dakota to reach the top of the list, though South Dakota topped the list of states reporting the most COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people in the last week.
The Department of Health has ramped up testing availability in Minnesota in recent months more so than neighboring states, which has driven case counts upward. The percentage of positive tests as compared to total tests administered has risen slightly in Minnesota but hasn't come close to the levels reported in South Dakota.
"We are right in the teeth of it, 77 deaths today," Gov. Tim Walz said. "Let's make sure we protect those folks that make a difference and today I'm asking you if you're thinking about wearing that mask or you're thinking about whether to go to that little gathering, stop and think about that firefighter, that police officer, that paramedic and give them a little bit of a break today, make their job a little bit easier, keep them on."
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- Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.
- COVID-19 discrimination hotline: 833-454-0148
- Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.