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KUNC is here to keep you up-to-date on the news about COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — Colorado's response to its spread in our state and its impact on Coloradans.

As Stay-At-Home Eases, Coronavirus Emergency Doesn't Change For Greeley's First Responders

Michael de Yoanna
Greeley Fire Department Station 2 firefighters and medical staffers have responded to coronavirus calls in an active part of the city.

As Gov. Jared Polis and Weld County clash over walking back pandemic stay-at-home orders, the moment for first responders is uncertain. Calls to 911 with people complaining of coronavirus are still coming in.

Weld County has the third-most cases in the state, and Greeley accounts for about 75% of them. For the city's firefighters and medical responders, the governor's month-long order has made it possible for them to focus on the crisis.

"Where the stay at home order affects us is that normal business is halted, basically," Greeley Fire Department battalion chief Chris Ellmer said. "So there's less people driving around. There's less people at bars, less people playing sports — all the things that generate a normal call volume."

Overall call volume is lower, he added, which has allowed crews more time to respond to coronavirus calls.

On Friday, Polis flat-out criticized plans in Weld County to move out from under the state's stay-at-home orders. Polis said the county "cannot" open businesses because the virus is still surging.

As politicians spar over the question of when life will return to normal — or how to define a new normal — Ellmer said Greeley's firefighters and medical workers will meet any additional demands as they come.

The city has made statewide headlines as the virus hit some of its most at-risk residents particularly hard, including people in nursing homes. Thirty-two residents at Centennial Healthcare Center have tested positive for COVID-19, with six more cases listed as "probable," according to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data. Nineteen residents at the home have died.

In a recent visit to Greeley Fire Station 2, Lt. Dominic Tatti said the station has responded to many calls.

"We wear N-95 masks and then I wear a paper mask over it to try to keep and preserve those masks just because, you know, shortages everywhere."

"This has been one of the hotspots for the city," Tatti said. "We cover the campus, the Greeley mall, Centennial Healthcare, Fairacres. We cover the hospital."

Fairacres is another hard-hit nursing home.

Crews at Station 2 are wearing donated masks, but the homemade masks won't work everywhere.

"We've got face shields that we're wearing when we're in patient contact," said Jaylie Ross, a paramedic with Banner Health, which runs an ambulance from Station 2.

During coronavirus calls, she must wear a protective gown and goggles.

"We wear N-95 masks and then I wear a paper mask over it to try to keep and preserve those masks just because, you know, shortages everywhere," Ross said.

Before crew members start their shifts, they have to pass a temperature check and answer questions about their health: Do they have a runny nose, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath or nausea? The checklist, along with extensive scrub downs of equipment and vehicles that respond to possible COVID-19 cases, is working. So far, just one member of the fire department — a fire inspector — has tested positive for the virus.

When engineer Mike Medhurst felt ill recently, he was ordered to stay home — one of about 20 members of the department to do so.

"I really wasn't symptomatic with traditional COVID-19 symptoms, but as a precaution, I got thrown into that bucket, unable to be tested because I didn't have serious enough symptoms, but bad enough not to come into work," he said. "So I was in that middle ground."

He spent his time away from the station working a 3-D printer to help make hundreds of items to improve personal protective equipment.

Shortages of personal protective equipment are an ongoing concern across the state that Ellmer hopes will soon be resolved. The hundreds of beds being set up at The Ranch in neighboring Loveland are expected to be available in coming weeks and could help ease any patient overflow at the region's hospitals.

"That's a nice light bulb in the tunnel," Ellmer said.

That's a light bulb in the tunnel, not a light at the end of the tunnel. As parts of the state begin to lift stay-at-home orders, life for first responders won't change, the crew at Station 2 agree. They are locked in perpetual coronavirus mode, meaning they must wear masks, keep social distances, and expect long days helping people who are hit the hardest by the pandemic — and deal with other emergencies likely to rise as other parts of the city begin to go back to work.

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.
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