The union representing Atlantic City firefighters has filed a complaint against the city contending its procedures for stopping the spread of COVID-19 aren’t adequate and resulted in 65 members being exposed to the virus.
Six firefighters tested positive for coronavirus recently and the city arranged rapid tests for those directly exposed to the infected individuals, according to the filing in Atlantic County Superior Court. Those who test negative are directed to return to work.
“Unsurprisingly, this ineffective approach has resulted in further spread of COVID-19… In doing so, the City has jeopardized the health and safety of all firefighters, their families, and the general public,” the complaint reads.
The complaint, first reported by The Press of Atlantic City, says some firefighters who tested negative are now showing symptoms, the filing says.
Atlantic City and the fire department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The union is asking a judge to order the city to place exposed firefighters on paid leave and direct them to self-quarantine for 14 days, provide the union with a list of the city’s procedures, disinfect each station between shifts and postpone the training of new hires scheduled to start the week of Sept. 28.
Local 198 alleges the city’s procedures are in conflict with guidance issued by the New Jersey Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says those exposed to an infected person should quarantine for 14 days due to the possibility of a false-negative result.
The state Department of Community Affairs, which runs the city under the state takeover and is named in the complaint, declined to comment specifically about the complaint.
In outlining the city’s procedure, DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said any firefighter exposed to another who tests positive for COVID-19 is quarantined from service until he or she can be given a rapid COVID-19 test for results in less than an hour.
She said exposed firefighters who receive negative results and are asymptomatic return to work, and said the procedure follows CDC guidelines surrounding critical infrastructure workers and coronavirus. Those exposed are being monitored for symptoms.
“For firefighters who receive positive results, they are ordered to quarantine for 14 days and placed under a doctor’s care. They are also provided information about how to safely quarantine and monitor their health. All firefighters who have been contacted about possible exposure to COVID-19 have been cooperative and have followed the procedures as directed in order to control the spread of the virus,” Ryan said.
“It’s important to note that the Atlantic City Fire Department quickly adopted COVID-19 safety protocol once the pandemic began. They include taking temperature readings of on-duty firefighters twice a day, social distancing and wearing masks in fire stations, eating in shifts, keeping sleeping bunks at least six feet apart, wearing full PPE on fire calls, doing daily cleaning regimens of equipment and fire stations, and conducting a heavy cleaning at least once a week,” she continued.
The six firefighters who tested positive last week work in Stations 1, 2 and 3, and each station has between eight and 13 firefighters during a 24-hour shift who eat and sleep in close proximity to each other, the complaint says.
One of the six developed symptoms while at work and was sent home to take a rapid test and another was going to be an instructor for next week’s new hire training and has been in close contact with other individuals who will be instructing or attending the training, the suit says.
“The city’s approach to handling the COVID-19 outbreak among firefighters is causing irreparable harm by jeopardizing the health and safety of firefighters, their families, and the general public. As COVID-19 is highly contagious, COVID-19 will continue to spread throughout the ACFD. The spread of COVID-19 among Firefighters also places their family members and housemates at risk,” the suit reads.
The suit claims a violation of the due process and equal protection clauses of the state constitution, violation of the Municipal Recovery and Stabilization Act and breach of contract with the union.
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