A number of Evanston firefighters were recently ordered to quarantine and not report for work after one member told the department he had tested positive for COVID-19 while off duty. Credit: File photo

Firefighters from several shifts of the Evanston Fire Department were recently ordered to quarantine and not report for work after one member told the department he had tested positive for the novel coronavirus while off duty.

As a safeguard, firefighters in contact with the individual, more than a dozen according to one estimate, were ordered not to report to work for a two-week period after the firefighter reported his positive test, sources said. The quarantine period reportedly will end Sept. 12.

The incident is believed the first in Evanston during the COVID-19 pandemic  to affect a large number of public safety employees.

Firefighters on shifts in two of the City’s fire stations were given the option of quarantining at home during the two weeks or at staying at a hotel outside of Evanston, sources said, where rooms can be rented to be used as quarantine and isolation sites for potential COVID-19 patients or for those in recovery.

The department was able to maintain the same level of staffing, with other firefighters stepping up to fill those shifts, sources said.

All the firefighters believed to have had contact with the individual were tested at a local hospital, with their tests coming back negative at this time, according to sources.

Asked about the situation, Deputy Fire Chief Paul Polep, the Department’s Media Relations Officer, declined comment Sept. 8, citing privacy concerns. Fire Chief Brian Scott also declined comment.

Ike Ogbo, the City’s Health & Human Services Director, did not respond to an email inquiring about the situation, and his voice mail was full and not accepting messages Sept. 8.

Centers for Disease Control guidelines recommend that anyone who had close contact with someone with COVID-19 should stay home for 14 days after their last exposure to that person.

A number of local departments have experienced similar situations during the coronavirus.

In Des Plaines, roughly 14 firefighters had been ordered to stay at home and not report to work after one member there had tested positive for the coronavirus in April, the Journal & Topics Media Group reported at the time.

Four Park Ridge firefighter/paramedics who responded to “multiple” calls involving COVID-19 patients tested positive for the virus last month, the Chicago Tribune reported, in a report that was confirmed by the village.

In Chicago, where as many as 46 firefighters had tested positive, according to one report in April, first responders were pushing for faster test results, expressing concern they felt vulnerable to the virus inside fire stations and were also worried about infecting others.

Evanston firefighters wear special personal protection equipment, including medical masks, when responding to calls.

 Dispatchers inform responders ahead of time whether someone in the household might have been exposed to the virus, “so we’re not working in the unknown — don’t get caught off guard,” one firefighter said.

The department is one of the most active in the area, breaking the 10,000 mark for emergency calls in 2016.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.