COVID-19 a leading cause of death for first responders so far this year

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RALEIGH, N.C.(WNCN) – Since the start of the pandemic, front line workers have known to be one of the most at-risk groups for COVID-19.

The Officer Down Memorial Page tracks deaths of law enforcement officers across the country. In 2019, the organization reported a total of 147 line of duty deaths. So far this year, line of duty deaths are already at 205. Of those, 114, or 55 percent, are attributed to COVID-19.

That makes COVID-19 the leading cause of death for law enforcement across the country. Death by gunfire came in second with 34 deaths. Car crashes were the third leading cause of death with 10 officers killed.

The Garner Police Department knows just how real the threat of COVID-19 is.

“It doesn’t take very many positive COVID cases to create problems for our staff,” said Joe Binns, interim chief at the Garner Police Department.

The police department has implemented protective measures. Officers may now connect with the public through a phone call instead of in person, are now backing off some traffic stops and are equipped with PPE.

“Officers everyday are taking those challenges and going out and doing the things they’re supposed to do. They’re just doing it as safe they can,” said Binns.

But first responders can’t always take the same precautions as the general public.

“There are times when we can’t social distance. There are times when you don’t have time to put a mask on when you’re dealing with a situation so certainly there are challenges out there,” said Binns.

The U. S. Fire Administration reports a total of 62 deaths of firefighter so far this year. Of those 18, or 30 percent, are attributed to COVID-19.

This year’s firefighter deaths are likely to surpass last year’s total deaths. The USFA reported 64 firefighters died for the entire year of 2019. However, that number was a dip from 2018 when USFA reported a total of 86 firefighter deaths.

Tim Bradley, executive director of the North Carolina State Firefighters Association said, “It’s alarming that high percentage but it’s just very difficult to mitigate exposure. Not only from the community but from each other.”

There’s not a whole lot else first responders can do. If a caller is asymptomatic or has never taken a COVID-19 test, firefighters could be exposed. Close working conditions could potentially worsen a spread.

“This COVID issue is difficult to address,” Bradley said.

Fire departments have long worked to drive down other causes of line of duty deaths.

“Driver training, accountability, structure fires. Now COVID comes along and we’ve lost 2 this year,” Bradley said.

Until government guideline are put in place, PPE and screening callers is all first responders have to rely on.

“The lower percentage of the public that stays from COVID-19 exposure, the less the fire service is going to,” he said.

North Carolina accounts for two COVID-19 related deaths in law enforcement officials.

Senior Detention Officer Alexander Pettiway

Senior Detention Officer Alexander Reginald Pettiway with the Durham County Sheriff’s Office died April 25 after infection during an outbreak at the detention center.

On April 22, Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead announced six employees at the detention center had tested positive for COVID-19.

The sheriff said most worked on the first floor of the detention center where intake and booking occurs. He added that one employee worked in the jail, directly with some of the inmates.

The CDC is tracking cases and deaths in correctional facilities.

Data from the CDC regarding correctional facilities shows 53 COVID-19 related deaths in detention center staff nationwide. Senior Detention Officer Pettiway death accounts for the single detention center staff death reported in North Carolina.

Bud Phouang (Photo courtesy of Randolph County Sheriff’s Office)

Deputy Sheriff Sypraseuth “Bud” Phouangphrachanh of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office died as a result of the virus on March 31. Sheriff Chris Watkins said Phouangphrachanh had been suffering from allergy symptoms and received outpatient care before being tested for COVID-19 and beginning self-isolation in his home. He was admitted to the hospital and passed away the next night.

Firefighter Jason Dean (Courtesy of the Town of Clayton)

Jason Dean, Deputy Chief of Operations & Training with the Clayton Fire Department died from complications of the virus. He had been a firefighter for more than 20 years before being infected in August.

USFA reported Fire Chief James “Tank” Waters, chief of the Tryon Fire Department died April 7 after being infected with COVID-19. USFA reported the Chief was assigned to work from home to quarantine as precaution against COVID-19. They reported Chief Waters fell il, had a medical emergency and was pronounced dead at a hospital. USFA reported a heart attack as the nature of death.

The agency reports 710 COVID-19 related death in health care workers across the country. EMS personnel are part of that count. The CDC however does not break down specific occupations further and does not specify where those deaths happened.

While these figures are being tracked by the CDC, there is no official database for COVID-19 deaths by occupation leaving a gap in the understanding of how hard hit first responders have been hit by the pandemic.

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