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North Little Rock fire crews face sick staff, more calls

10 firefighters ill amid virus surge by Neal Earley | July 30, 2021 at 7:02 a.m.
A NEBCO Fire Department truck is shown in this 2017 file photo.

With the delta variant surging across the state, a wave of covid-19 has hit the North Little Rock Fire Department, its chief said.

Ten firefighters are out sick with the coronavirus, with one hospitalized and on a ventilator. Another firefighter was released from the hospital Thursday "with oxygen," North Little Rock Fire Chief Gerald Tucker said.

In large part because of the infectious delta variant, cases of covid are surging again around the state and pushing hospitals close to their capacity limits.

While Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the state's top health officials have traveled around Arkansas pleading with people to get vaccinated, Arkansas still ranks near the bottom in the nation for vaccination rates, with about 36% of the population fully vaccinated.

The rates for the North Little Rock Fire Department fare somewhat better, with about half of its personnel vaccinated, Tucker said.

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"I mean, it's their right. Kind of disheartening, being first-responders, that they're not getting vaccinated," Tucker said. "Like I tell them, I think it's kind of selfish for them not to get it. They're being selfish to their family and their co-workers."

The firefighters out with covid are costing the department more than $90,000 in overtime pay for a two-week period. That's almost four times what the department usually pays in overtime, Tucker said.

Covid-related cases now make up a bulk of the department's calls with between 10 to 12 coronavirus calls a day. Many are people calling 911 saying they are having trouble breathing, mirroring the type of emergency calls from the previous covid spike during the winter, Tucker said.

The covid spike is also costing the department time. After covid-related calls, firefighters have to go through a decontamination process that takes about 30 minutes, where firefighters shower, wash their clothes and decontaminate any vehicles they used.

But even with decontamination and personal protective equipment, frequent exposure to covid-19 has some firefighters worried they may bring the virus home to their family.

"Like I said, my number one priority is the safety of my guys and their family, and we're making a lot more covid calls," Tucker said.

The problem is citywide. Around 20 city employees had covid as of Wednesday, said North Little Rock Mayor Terry Hartwick. Hartwick said he has been looking for both carrots and sticks to entice more city employees to get vaccinated.

Hartwick suggested a gift certificate for those who choose to get the shot, or mandatory testing for those who don't. Hartwick said mandatory testing for unvaccinated employees is something he hopes Gov. Asa Hutchinson pushes for.

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"To me, I want my city employees to be as healthy as possible, so we don't infect any of our citizens," Hartwick said. "That's where I come from."

With the vaccine still under emergency-use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, agencies cannot require employees to get the vaccine. Full approval from the FDA could give the go-ahead for employers to institute vaccine mandates.

Running on a platform that touted his previous experience and as a mayor who could guide the city through the pandemic, Hartwick said the recent surge reminded him of when he was sworn in back in January.

Restaurants and bars are open without restrictions, and the city is again hosting conventions, but things could change quickly, Hartwick said.

"Now, we're looking like we're back to December and January if we don't keep getting our shots," Hartwick said.

As of Wednesday, five North Little Rock Police and eight Little Rock Police officers were out with covid-19. The Little Rock Fire Department wasn't able to provide the number of personnel out with covid Thursday.

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