Scientists at New York University (NYU) assessed data on nearly every frontline worker at the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) and found that a large proportion had either tested positive or had had tell-tale symptoms of COVID-19.
Rates of infection among fire department first responders were about 15-times higher than coronavirus rates among the general population of the city – even when it was the global epicenter of the pandemic.
And COVID-19 may have pose a higher risk of turning deadly to firefighters, whose lungs are often already damaged by smoke damage.
FDNY firefighters and paramedics answered countless calls for coronavirus sufferers during the spring peak of the pandemic in New York City, and more than a third of them likely became infected themselves (file)
During more than two months of lockdowns in New York City, the usually bustling streets were eerily empty and quiet, save for the red and blue flashes and wail of sirens from ambulances and firetrucks.
Nationwide, the majority of calls that fire departments respond to are not for fires, but for medical emergencies.
All firefighters are required to be certified emergency medical technicians (EMTs), so that they can administer CPR and and first aid on the scene of a fire.
But more often than not – between 60 and 70 percent of the time – those skills are put to use while responding emergencies that don’t involve fire.
Often there are more fire departments in a given area than there are hospitals or ambulances they can dispatch.
As a result, it’s not uncommon for firefighters to be the first on the scene of a heart attack or car accident.
And at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in New York City, hospitals and the health care workforce were stretched to their breaking points.
Firefighters have to be certified as EMTs, and between 60 and 70 percent of the calls they answer are for medical emergencies, not fires (file)
It was all hands on deck, with dermatologists suddenly caring for infectious disease patients, nurses and doctors staffing the Javits Center and its overflow of patients and fire departments’ workers answering a surge in calls for people in respiratory distress.
Those firemen and women were exposed over and over, day after day, to New Yorkers sick enough with COVID-19 to need emergency assistance.
In fact, it was fire department data that alerted New York City officials to the likely – and considerable – undercount of COVID-19 deaths.
At the beginning of March, when coronavirus cases were just starting to crop up in the city, about 15,000 frontline workers were employed by the FDNY.
To find out how many became infected, the NYU researchers gathered data on 14,290 frontline FDNY workers.
Between the beginning of March and the end of May, 1,569 of the firefighters and EMTs with the FDNY tested positive for COVID-19.
Another 3,453 were not tested but had symptoms that made them suspected cases.
And 63 men and women of the FDNY were hospitalized for coronavirus. Four of them died.
In total, 5,175 firefighters and paramedics – more than 36 percent – were likely infected with coronavirus.
That’s a more than 15-times higher rate than was seen among the general population of New York City. Medical personnel were also more likely than firefighters to catch coronavirus.
‘Our study emphasises the higher risk of COVID-19 infection for FDNY responders corresponding with the surge in pandemic-related emergency calls,’ said study co-author Dr David Prezant, Chief Medical Officer with the FDNY
‘Although all staff follow the same PPE protocol, it could be that emergency medical workers were more exposed to COVID-19 than firefighters, for example while traveling with patients to hospital and administering treatment to help them breathe.’
FDNY first responders were less likely to become severely ill or die of COVID-19 than were other infected New Yorkers, however.
Firefighters and paramedics tend to be younger and more physically fit than people in other professions, likely making them more resilient against infectious diseases like COVID-19.
The exception was those who already had decreased lung function, either from smoke exposure or smoking.
Firefighters regularly have their lung function tested, and the scientists found that for every 100mL less air they could exhale in one breath year over year, their risk of severe COVID-19 increased 71 percent.
‘These findings highlight the importance of protecting emergency workers in countries around the world and maintaining the capacity of our emergency services in the event of subsequent waves of the pandemic,’ said Dr Prezant.
‘This means proper use of PPE, but also ensuring emergency workers get flu vaccinations and, when available, COVID-19 vaccinations.’