Examples of COVID epidemics among forest firefighters

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A firefighter and another person at Diamond Mtn. Rod on the Dixie Fire. Photo by Luanne Baumann. Posted on August 11, 2021.

Over the past few days, we have come across a number of examples of COVID outbreaks among wildland firefighters.

Dixie fire

In an August 20 article, the Redding Record Searchlight, a northern California newspaper, reported that CAL FIRE said there were 14 positive cases in the Western Dixie Fire District Fire Camp.

The positive cases include five from the same crew, two from the same bulldozer, two from the same water supplier and five “random cases,” the agency said. “These staff members were immediately released from the incident.”

Two of the cases have led to hospitalizations, with one person now in San Diego who, according to Cal Fire, “is doing well”. A second person, now at Redding, “is showing improvements,” the agency said.

The information below comes from Forest Fire Lessons Learned Center.

Zone Command, October 2020

In October of last year, while working on the August Fire Complex, 9 of 14 members of an Area Command Team who worked at the Shasta-Trinity National Forest Supervisor’s Office in Redding have tested positive. The first case was discovered after the team was released and they were all on travel status followed by days off. This made contact with everyone difficult. Some family members of those who tested positive have also been infected. Given these unexpected results, a The facilitated learning analysis has been launched develop lessons learned that could be shared with the forest fire community.

The following four have all taken place in California this year:

The Hotshot team, May

Four days after the crew’s season began, one person tested positive. The crew superintendent and Forest took immediate action to identify close contacts; 19 employees have been identified. Of the 19, 7 were fully vaccinated (and immediately returned to work) and 12 were quarantined (some at home and others in hotels).

Fuel module, May

On May 14, a member of the Fuels module developed COVID-like symptoms; the person tested positive for COVID on May 16. The contact tracing identified 10 close contacts (7 other members of the fuels team and 3 additional employees who worked in the building industry). All close contacts were encouraged to get tested for COVID-19 and asked to self-quarantine (although 4 were vaccinated, this was not used in the decision). An unvaccinated individual lived in a barracks and moved to a hotel on the 16th. A second individual (the module supervisor) tested positive on May 17th.

Two more cases were confirmed later in the week (4 in total in the cluster); none of the vaccinated employees tested positive or exhibited symptoms. At the time of the assessment (June 2), one of the sick employees had returned to the office and others were teleworking. One of the four people was contacted by county public health, two were contacted by state public health, the fourth person was never contacted by any public health department.

The four vaccinated employees did not get sick while four of the seven unvaccinated employees eventually tested positive

Hotshot team, July

An Interagency Hotshot Crew (IHC) completed a 14 day mission with 18 crew members and arrived home on June 22, 2021 (the IHC had 2 additional crew members who returned early and were not exposed); no employee was aware of the exposure or had symptoms. The IHC was on leave on June 23 and 24, 2021 for mandatory rest.

On June 24, a crew member developed a fever and took the initiative to immediately take a COVID test; the test gave a positive result the same day. Contact tracing revealed that the remaining 17 crew members were in close contact within 48 hours of symptom onset. All close contacts were other IHC crew members (during the return trip) and no other staff were identified.

Of the 18 crew members who returned from their mission on June 22, 3 were fully vaccinated and returned to work on June 25. The other employees (15) did not return to work; the sick employee was placed in isolation and unit leaders asked unit leaders to self-quarantine for 14 days. The 2 team members who returned early (1 vaccinated) were not affected.

None of the vaccinated employees became ill while 6 of the unvaccinated employees tested positive.

Engine crew and others, July

On July 6, 2021, local county public health contacted the Forest Service regarding an employee who had been exposed to a confirmed case of COVID-19. The employee had no symptoms and received negative test results (rapid test and PCR test). Public health advised the employee to quarantine himself for 10 days.

No other FS employees were involved in this exposure as they were considered a secondary contact because the employee was exposed outside of work.

The quarantined employee impacted the availability of a fire engine in high fire danger, which is why an employee from a different station began work on the engine on July 6, 2021.

On July 7, 2021, the employee covering the engine (from the other station) developed COVID-like symptoms and tested positive for COVID-19 the same day.

This cluster concerns 12 employees, including only 1 vaccinated and one who was in quarantine and not exposed. As of July 12, 6 of the unvaccinated employees have tested positive for COVID -19. All unvaccinated employees (10) were placed in quarantine. One employee chose to stay in a hotel and everyone else stayed at their homes.

The vaccinated employee did not become ill while 6 of 11 unvaccinated employees tested positive for COVID-19.


Lessons to be learned?

While the Delta variant, which began to spread widely in the United States in July, has changed the ease with which it is possible to become infected even among vaccinated people, it is still true that a vaccination significantly reduces risks of serious infection, hospitalization and death.

Here are the last paragraphs of an excellent detailed article published on August 18, 2021 on Health Line:

Vaccines are very effective even if they are not perfect

COVID-19 vaccines have been developed to stop the development of severe forms of the disease that can lead to hospitalization and death. In this regard, they have been extremely effective even though the vaccines are not 100% effective.

While it is true that some partially and fully vaccinated people have developed COVID-19, breakthrough infections should not be a concern for most of the population. However, doctors still recommend that people use caution in areas with low vaccination rates and high transmission.

Vaccines also dramatically reduce the likelihood of mild and symptomatic infections and prevent deaths and hospitalizations.

Kullar noted that the Delta variant is both more contagious and transmissible, and that those who harbor the Delta variant can carry a viral load up to 1,200 times higher than the original strain.

“Given all of this information, it is important for everyone not only to get the full vaccine, but also to follow infection prevention measures, such as wearing a face mask in public, physically distancing others and avoid the large crowds until we come to the turn of this thrust.


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