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Fighting Coronavirus Is Taking A Toll On Florida's First Responders

Orange County firefighters hold up signs that read "We stay here for you, please stay home for us."
Orange County Fire Rescue Facebook page
First responders are continuing to keep their communities safe, despite putting themselves at risk for contracting COVID-19. That adds stress to an already high-pressure job.

Hundreds of first responders across the state are in quarantine after being exposed to people who may have the coronavirus. And some have tested positive for COVID-19, including a Tampa police officer and firefighters in Sarasota and Orange counties.

Most Floridians are being told to stay home as much as possible, but that's not an option for firefighters, paramedics or police officers. They continue to respond to emergencies in their communities, rarely ever knowing for sure if the people they'll interact with have COVID-19.

“It’s something that's on the back of their minds every time they go,” said Darla Portman, union president of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association.

Emergency dispatchers are screening callers and asking if they have symptoms common to the coronavirus like fever or cough.

First responder with St. Petersburg Fire Rescue demonstrates the use of the personal protective equipment (PPE) its new COVID-19 "strike team" will wear.
Credit St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Facebook page
First responder with St. Petersburg Fire Rescue demonstrates the use of the personal protective equipment (PPE) its new COVID-19 "strike team" will wear.

But with some people not displaying symptoms, it’s hard to know if an overdose victim or someone whose house is on fire also happens to be carrying the virus.

That means even in communities like St. Petersburg and Miami Beach that have specific units devoted to COVID-19 response, other first responders could still be exposed while on regular duty.

If responders know they are entering an area where the virus may be present they can adjust their protocol to minimize contact and suit up in protective gear – if they've got it.

"But the real problem is that we don't have the equipment that we need – and I know the city's trying real hard to do it – like masks, alcohol, hand sanitizer, even PPE suits which are personal protective equipment,” said Portman.

Tampa Police Department spokesman Eddy Durkin said officers have an “adequate supply” of masks for now and have 10,000 more on order.

“Officers do not use gowns in the course of thier standard duty,” Durkin said, adding that the business community has been donating hand sanitizer. 

Securing protective equipment has been a challenge for departments across Florida, and state officials say they are struggling as well.

The federal government recently diverted supplies headed for Florida to New York, the epicenter of the nation’s outbreak. And the state's emergency management director Jared Moskowitz said during a press conference in Palm Beach County on Wednesday that the private market for N95 masks is "Ponzi scheme," plagued by shady distributors and unfair pricing.

Tampa police officers sport protective masks and stand around a patrol car.
Credit Tampa Police Department Facebook page
Tampa police officers sport protective masks. The department said it has enough supplies now, but union leaders are concerned about shortages. Securing protective gear has been a challenge across the state.

Coping with stress from COVID-19

But concerns about getting coronavirus are only part of what first responders are dealing with.

Jeff Orrange is a lieutenant paramedic with the Orlando Fire Department and said “life has definitely been an adjustment” for first responders since coronavirus made its way into the state.

"There's safety concerns, there's people at home left wondering what their loved one is doing when they go to work for 24-hours and what they're being exposed to, but on top of that uncertainty, there's still the stressors of everyday life,” he said.

Jeff Orrange with the Orlando Fire Department
Credit Matthew Peddie / WMFE
Jeff Orrange was recently pulled off his usual paramedic duties at the Orlando Fire Department to help firefighters keep their mental health in check as they work during the coronavirus pandemic.

Orrange is juggling his job with being a supportive husband for his wife. Her small business has slowed down due to the outbreak and she's teaching their kids now attending school virtually from home.

Some of his colleagues were already dealing with sick family members, financial issues and other problems before the coronavirus upended "normal" life, and none of that has gone away.

"We're still seeing the same things we saw yesterday, but now we're seeing it through goggles and face masks and gowns," Orrange said.

RELATED: WUSF's complete coronavirus coverage

Orrange co-founded the Orlando Firefighters Peer Support Team and is the statewide peer coordinator for the Florida Firefighters Safety and Health Collaborative. Because of that experience, his department recently pulled him off paramedic duties at his engine company to help firefighters keep their mental health in check as they respond to COVID-19.

"Finding some level of comfort in all of this chaos has to be a high priority," he said.

That's especially the case for first responders battling post-traumatic stress disorder.

Patch on Jeff Orrange’s sleeve that says “Everyone Goes Home.”
Credit Matthew Peddie / WMFE
The patch on Jeff Orrange’s sleeve represents the goal of the Florida Firefighter Safety and Health Collaborative.

Dr. Deborah Beidel directs UCF RESTORES, a clinic at the University of Central Florida known for using virtual reality and exposure therapy to treat trauma in veterans and first responders, including some who survived the Pulse Nightclub and Parkland shootings.

The clinic had to temporarily close because of the coronavirus but Beidel said therapists are still treating patients through telehealth. She said they're helping first responders cope with this new stressor in addition to their existing trauma.

"So talking about things like relaxation training, getting some exercise, a procedure we call 'mindfulness' – doing things to kind of calm and center themselves as they go about their job and as they go about addressing their trauma in treatment," she explained.

As for what the community can do to help first responders, donated supplies are always appreciated.

But Orrange said even something as simple as saying "thank you" or just letting a first responder know they're in your thoughts means a lot to them as they continue their fight.

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I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.