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COVID-19 outbreak investigated at Fire District 3

Seven firefighters at Jackson County Fire District No. 3 and two others considered “close contacts” tested positive for COVID-19 in January, prompting county public health officials to investigate the cases as a potential outbreak.

An investigation opened Jan. 26, public health officials said. No positive tests for the illness have been reported at District 3 since mid-January, and the investigation will end Feb. 11 if that continues, according to Tanya Phillips, county health promotion manager. State health officials report outbreaks at workplaces of 30 or more employees when there are five or more COVID-19 cases over a two-week period.

The investigation was one of two reported by county public health officials Wednesday, with another reported at MP Forestry, Inc. Public health reported 13 cases there, affecting 10 employees and three close contacts. A majority of the employees have completed isolation protocols, with a few still in isolation but feeling good, company foreman Enrique Moreno said. A public health news release referred to the business as “collaborative.”

The first Fire District 3 case occurred in early January, according to Deputy Chief Mike Hussey. Other cases followed, affecting multiple engine companies.

“We had a little cluster,” Hussey said, adding it’s not known where the first case originated. “We’ve always taken a high standard within our station houses, because we know our guys are together 24, 48 hours.”

During the pandemic, area fire districts — including District 3 — have had to institute new incident response protocols to better protect firefighters and the public. They include going to scenes wearing personal protective equipment and sometimes doing screenings over FaceTime or the phone on less urgent calls. In-person contacts have also been limited and are often done outside if possible, Hussey said.

“There was a learning curve. People had to become comfortable with it,” Hussey said.

The district coordinated with Jackson County Public Health for best practices, sending home firefighters who felt even mildly sick. All cases have since resolved, public health officials said.

“All of our employees have been back to work. It didn’t compromise our level of service,” Hussey said.

The fire district employs 43 crew members, such as firefighters, engineers and captains, three battalion chiefs, two EMTs and two paramedics, according to Heather Sears, Fire District 3 community engagement coordinator. There are also 16 personnel who work in administration, six of whom are certified as EMTs or above.

So far, about one-third of the district’s employees have received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, Hussey said, while about one-sixth have received both doses. More personnel will be receiving the second dose soon, Hussey said.

Reach Mail Tribune web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com.