3 Clayton firefighters hospitalized with COVID-19; 14 more test positive within department, officials say

CLAYTON, N.C. (WTVD) -- The Clayton Fire Department says, as of Saturday morning, three firefighters have been hospitalized with COVID-19 and 14 others have tested positive for the virus after a cluster was identified at the department.

Officials confirmed the town's Fire Department had a COVID-19 cluster. According to a statement, the first sick firefighter led to four others on the same shift testing positive requiring the fire department to test all three shifts which revealed the 17 positive cases.

FULL CORONAVIRUS COVERAGE

In the news statement, Fire Chief Lee Barbee emphasized that firefighters not only respond to fires, they also respond to medical emergencies, car accidents and other instances that require close contact.

"We aren't saying this to garner sympathy or to bring unwanted attention to our fire families, but simply for the public we serve to know - we're taking all the necessary precautions to prevent further spread, to stay healthy and to remain ready to respond when you need us most," Barbee said.

Read Fire Chief Lee Barbee's statement in its entirety here:
"Clayton firefighters and their families need your prayers and support.

Six months into the pandemic and COVID-19 finally came knocking at our fire house door. About two weeks ago, a firefighter didn't feel well and let us know immediately. We had daily been disinfecting the station and equipment, but social distancing isn't always easy to do when responding to emergencies or living together under one roof. Many don't realize our firefighters respond to more than just fires, in fact, they respond mostly to medical calls and car accidents, and that includes going into homes and coming into close contact with patients who may have COVID-19. Health officials haven't been able to help us trace exactly how our first firefighters were infected, but as of this morning, 17 Clayton firefighters have tested positive and three of them are now in the hospital.

And that's why we need your thoughts and prayers more than ever. Firefighters are family and they also consider the community their family. We can't name the employees at this time, but we can tell you their loved ones are worried and hurting. Right now, the families haven't asked for anything specifically - only to know their community is behind them and holding them up their prayers.

The firefighters who remain working are hurting too...they're covering for their fire brothers and sisters, gladly filling in shifts, and they haven't missed a single beat in responding to calls. But the normal comradery enjoyed in this high-risk, stress-filled occupation has now turned to isolation. They don't eat at the table together anymore - they eat alone. The bunk rooms they share have now been moved and only one person sleeps in a room. That means some sleeping in the training room or the small gym room. They do a full disinfection of the station on each shift change. The updates from the outgoing shift to the firefighters coming on duty are now done by telephone, not in person - in fact, those going home walk out one door and those coming on shift go out another, so they can't do their routine in-person debrief after their 24 or 36-hour shifts. They wear N95 masks at all times in the firehouse, unless they're in a room by themselves. Those who tested positive but are displaying no systems are having to remain home in quarantine...and that eats them up, they want to be back on the job. And some have commented that they sense a subtle change in the way the public is reacting to them when they see them out in uniform...it's not intentional and it's understood in this time of uncertainty.

We aren't saying this to garner sympathy or to bring unwanted attention to our fire families, but simply for the public we serve to know - we're taking all the necessary precautions to prevent further spread, to stay healthy and to remain ready to respond when you need us most.

One of our firefighters closes out every email this way: ""Providing Prompt Professional Services with Pride! Everyone Goes Home!" Thank you, Clayton, for your continued support in that mission. We're hopeful for the day when ALL of our firefighters can come back home...to the firehouse.
"
Copyright © 2020 WTVD-TV. All Rights Reserved.