First Responders Question Lack of Priority for Their Ranks in COVID-19 Testing

‘We need to take care of ourselves so that we can take care of the public,’ says senior police official in Newark
Credit: Queven from Pixabay
First responders are given no preference when it comes to who gets tested for the novel coronavirus.

During the course of an interview Wednesday morning, a text message popped up on the phone of Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose: Another city police officer had tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total to five, along with six firefighters.

Ambrose is certain those numbers will rise: There are currently 46 Newark cops in quarantine, with 11 test results pending, he said. There are 48 firefighters in quarantine and seven have tests pending. In total, Newark reports 78 cases of COVID-19 among city residents.

Ambrose thinks Gov. Phil Murphy is doing a good job in handling the crisis — with one glaring exception: He is extremely frustrated that first responders are given no preference when it comes to who gets tested for the virus.

“Where is the state on this? It’s absurd,” Ambrose said. “Every life is important, but there has to be a priority for first responders.”

He likens the situation to the standard oxygen-mask instructions from a flight attendant — first take care of yourself, then help your child. “We have to take care of ourselves so we can take care of the public,” he said.

‘We’re not there’

State Police Superintendent Patrick J. Callahan said that topic came up in a meeting with the attorney general and police chiefs late last week. “We’re not there,” he said Wednesday, sitting alongside Murphy at the state’s daily press briefing on the crisis.

Callahan said he also spoke to the police commissioner in Boston on Tuesday, and learned that they have set up a dedicated testing site for first responders. “We’re struggling in that balance of how to set that up,” he added.

In the meantime, Ambrose on Wednesday launched a COVID-19 unit to support the city’s 1,200 police officers. The unit comprises police officers and firefighters who are also nurses and EMTs. They are monitoring temperatures and symptoms, and providing support, such as delivering gloves and masks to the responders in the field.

Elsewhere, two Jersey City police officers have tested positive for COVID-19, while 65 officers have taken leave; nearly a third have been cleared to return to work this week, according to a city spokesperson.

And the State Police reported Wednesday that four troopers and two recruits have tested positive. One Fanwood police officer tested positive and is self-isolating, the mayor of the Union County borough said Wednesday.

It appears there is no one tracking infections among first responders on a statewide level. State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said Wednesday she is not receiving any such reports. The State Police referred inquiries to the Attorney General’s Office, which did not respond to emails.

Most ambulance and rescue workers are in the private sector, where it is even more difficult to obtain information. “We are not giving out data or numbers on our patients or team members with COVID,” a RWJ/Barnabas spokesperson said.

Click here for a related story by NJTV News.

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