By Debbie Hall
Derek Wagner, chief of the Jeb Stuart Rescue Squad in Patrick County, issued a warning to residents after nine squad personnel tested positive for COVID-19.
“Please follow the CDC guidelines,” Wagner said of guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “We are healthcare providers. We followed the guidelines, but it still happened to some of us.”
Wagner said he tested positive on Aug. 6. Based on what he observed, he believes the outbreak was spawned on Aug. 1, when two instructors taught, and seven members attended, a CPR training class.
At the time, one of the instructors had mild symptoms that “were attributed to allergies or sinus issues, which were not out of the ordinary for that person at this time of year,” Wagner said. Another person was asymptomatic and exhibited no symptoms.
“Neither one of them knew at the time,” Wagner said, adding that all of those attending the class followed the guidelines by wearing masks, frequently washing their hands, and observing other recommendations.
When the class ended, four of the nine participants decided to have a meal at a restaurant outside of the state, he said.
Three other people, including two squad members who did not attend the class, also joined the group at the restaurant, Wagner said.
“We all wore masks into the restaurant,” and had limited contact with high-touch surfaces, “but everybody that went out to eat, we all got it. We were considered a hot spot,” he said, and explained that designation only requires three positive cases.
Those who attended the class but did not go to the restaurant did not test positive for the virus, Wagner said, adding that after he returned to the county, he responded to a call involving a person who was known to be positive for the virus, “so I had three chances to get it” in that 24-hour period.
Two other squad personnel later tested positive for COVID-19 after attending an Aug. 8 mask fitting. Neither had attended the meal or the training class, Wagner said, adding that he did not attend the fitting because it was held during his period of quarantine.
Wagner said the squad also lost a long-time member who last responded to a call “pre-COVID,” due to health concerns.
Janice Plaster Turner died Sept. 1, according to Wagner and Turner’s obituary. She was a life-time member of the squad and had held every position in the organization. Turner also held other service positions. She was a bus driver in Patrick County and a substitute teacher in Henry County, according to her obituary.
“I will miss Janice a lot,” he said.
The outbreak also impacted service, as the number of calls the squad answered plummeted to about 50 percent as personnel battled the virus, Wagner said.
The squad has fewer than 10 active volunteers; five full-time and four part-time career personnel, including the total of nine who tested positive for the virus, according to Wagner, who said he was cleared by officials with the Virginia Department of Health to return to duty on Aug. 14.
“The health department didn’t think it was necessary for us to retest,” Wagner said, but he opted to take a second test, and eventually returned to duty on Aug. 17, “after I tested negative for COVID-19.”
The remaining personnel who tested positive also received a negative test, and have since returned to duty, he said.
“Everybody is cleared now,” Wagner said, and added the squad’s coverage of calls also has improved.
He is hopeful the new masks — Air Purifying Respirators (APR) MSA 200 – will help.
“They are a lot easier to decontaminate,” Wagner said, and added the masks are reusable. The outer portion is made of plastic and can be disinfected after each use. New filters also can be installed.
The squad had been using N-95 masks, which can be used only once and then must be discarded, he said.
“We have a good plan in place. We are trying to stop the spread, and we have been trying to stop it,” Wagner said, and added personnel take all precautions – both in and outside of the building.
For instance, all perform daily self-screenings, “frequently wash their hands and keep their hands away from their faces,” he said. Members wear masks and use other protective gear when responding to calls and during training classes, and high touch surfaces are disinfected at least twice during each shift.
Additionally, ambulances are decontaminated and disinfected after each patient, ambulance doors are left open while at the hospital to help air out the vehicle, and the squad enforces a strict ‘No Visitor’ policy at the station, he said.
“That’s the thing, you can have it and be asymptomatic. You can have it and not even know,” he said. “If I wasn’t around a known positive, I never would have thought I had it or got tested.”