Police, firefighters prepare for coronavirus to thin the blue, red lines

The thin blue and red lines of public safety could get even thinner as firefighters and cops prepare for increasing numbers of front-line responders isolating because they’re sick or have been exposed to someone who has coronavirus.

“Every day we’re seeing those numbers go up by 20% to 50%,” said Richard MacKinnon Jr., president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts union. “Every night it’s staggering how much these numbers are increasing.”

In Boston, four cops, two firefighters and an EMS worker have tested positive for the rapidly spreading disease that’s sickened more than 1,800 and killed 15 statewide.

MacKinnon said Wednesday that 545 of his union members statewide have filled out forms that they’ve been exposed to the virus. Eight of the 12,000-plus union members have tested positive, with 170 more under three-day quarantine awaiting the results of tests. The majority of those tests have been done in the past few days at the Shrewsbury CVS that’s been established as a testing site for emergency responders. MacKinnon said all of the local union presidents pass along their updated numbers to him every day, texting them into a hotline.

An additional 114 firefighters are under 14-day quarantine, not yet tested but waiting out the possible incubation period of the virus to make sure they don’t have symptoms.

It’s inevitable that these numbers continue to grow, cutting into the available workforce, MacKinnon said.

“As this progresses, we see ourselves working much longer hours,” MacKinnon said. “It sounds cliche, but it’s what we do.”

Boston Police Department spokesman Sgt. John Boyle said four officers now have tested positive for coronavirus, up from one over the weekend. Boyle said the department is following health officials’ protocol in washing hands, keeping everything clean and tracing who the officers have been in contact with.

He declined to go into detail about what the department would do if the ranks are thinned out, saying, “We’ll plan accordingly to deploy resources where we need to.”

Interim Boston Fire Commissioner Jack Dempsey said in a statement that the department has 17 firefighters in quarantine plus two who have tested positive. The department is “not going to respond to hypotheticals,” he said, but noted that it is isolating the firehouses from each other and training firefighters on infectious disease protocol.

Boston union Local 718 President Bobby Petitti said the eventual increase in absences is “definitely a concern.”

“We’re preparing for the worst, just kind of hoping for the best,” he said, noting the isolation of the firehouses as a way of preparing. “We took an oath to protect the public, and if we’re not there, who’s going to protect them if something happens?”

Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, the president of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police, said the number of infected officers in the major cities remains in the single digits out of around 9,000 officers. About 70 are quarantined.

Kyes said the plan is “all hands on deck.” In Chelsea — where two police officers were quarantined, and have since tested negative and gone back to work — Kyes has called in the community services unit for patrol duty, and has the detective bureau on standby in case the force begins to thin.

“Every rank would be in uniform,” Kyes said. “Every rank would be on the streets.”

He said the major city departments are all sharing their numbers, anticipating more of an impact coming.

“This is the quiet before the storm  — and it’s not that quiet,” Kyes said.

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