Weslaco firefighters union, city at odds over COVID-19 response

The city of Weslaco is at odds with some of its own employees, who say its response to the COVID-19 pandemic is being mishandled and safety concerns are being ignored. The concerns came to light when the Weslaco Firefighters Association issued a news release Tuesday criticizing the fire department and city administration’s response to the pandemic, calling it “troubling.”

The union is criticizing the city for making employees who are sent or asked to stay home as a precautionary measure to use their sick leave or vacation time. The union’s leadership has also raised concerns about staffing issues, and the types of professional protective equipment being provided to paramedics.

“In Weslaco, at least three firefighters have been ordered by the fire department to use personal vacation or sick time during quarantines,” the statement reads. “Other questions have arisen about fire department COVID-19 response issues, including short staffing and the availability of proper personal protection equipment (PPE).”

In the statement, union President John Peña, an 11-year veteran of the fire department, urged the city to better coordinate its response to the pandemic for the safety of firefighters and citizens. “This is life and death,” Peña said. “We urge the fire chief to work with us, not against us. Our requests for better COVID-19 protocols are intended to keep our fire department strong and the citizens safe.”

Just hours after the union released their statement, Weslaco officials issued a public response decrying the criticism, reiterating that officials are following guidelines issued by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and are providing all staff with proper protective equipment.

“As members of the Emergency Medical Task Force-11 State Response the Weslaco Fire Department was well prepared for the start and continued response to COVID-19 as 7 personnel are specially trained for infectious response also with 3 (DICO) Designated Infectious Control Officer,” Fire Chief Antonio “Tony” Lopez said in the city’s response.

Lopez referred to a team of seven paramedics who comprise the Infectious Disease Response Unit. The unit received special training in infectious disease response in the wake of the Ebola epidemic in 2014. Together with the DICOs, the IDRU are at the forefront of the city’s response to potential COVID-19 patients. They operate via a three-pronged approach that starts with Weslaco dispatchers.

If dispatchers determine that a caller requesting EMS service may be a coronavirus patient, a single member of the IDRU responds to the call for further assessment. Should he determine the patient may have contracted coronavirus, then IDRU paramedics are dispatched in an ambulance that has been specially outfitted for infectious disease response.

The ambulance is a mobile intensive care unit equipped with extra PPE and disinfecting supplies. In addition, the patient treatment compartment has been sealed off from the driver’s cabin to prevent the spread of pathogens.

However, union officials say the decision making process for dispatching the IDRU and its ambulance is letting some potential COVID-19 cases fall through the cracks and that some calls for service which warrant the heightened caution of an infectious disease response are instead being assigned to normal paramedic crews.

“These dispatchers don’t have any type of medical training, and if they don’t screen the call properly, that truck doesn’t get activated, and if that truck doesn’t get activated, a regular ambulance has to go and then that puts us in an unsafe environment right from the beginning,” said Carlos Hernandez during a phone interview Wednesday. Hernandez serves as a fire engine driver and paramedic, and is also vice president of the firefighters’ association.

Hernandez said he responded to just such a situation Tuesday evening when he was dispatched to a service call for a patient experiencing diarrhea. Once at the scene, however, he learned additional information that led him to believe the patient may be at higher risk for contracting the coronavirus, including that the patient works in the medical field.

Ultimately, Hernandez requested the assistance of the IDRU, which responded and took over the call.

Peña says having personnel with more advanced medical training assisting dispatchers would go a long way to making sure calls are properly flagged as potential COVID-19 response situations. “What a lot of cities are doing is they’re actually placing a paramedic at the dispatch center, monitoring those calls and making those extra (screening) questions,” Peña said. “A simple question as, ‘Do you mind if I ask where do you work?’” he said.

The fire chief has taken heed of the criticism and the union’s suggestions for improving how the department screens EMS calls. “We’ve already spoken about that already — to get a paramedic into dispatch,” Lopez said Wednesday.

“There’s gonna be some underlying training that we would have to do because of the compliance of some of the sensitive information that is seen by a dispatcher. So there’s certain certifications you need to have and that’s a conversation we’ve been having with dispatch and the police chief, which manages dispatch,” he said.

But the union has other concerns, as well, including questions regarding the supply and integrity of PPE being supplied them by the city — in particular, the much-coveted N95 respirator.

Around the country in areas hardest hit by the virus, medical workers and first responders are rapidly burning through their supplies of the 3M manufactured masks, which are capable of filtering out particulates as small as 3 microns. And local and state officials have been left to compete against each other when bidding on caches of N95 masks.

Weslaco officials insist their supply of the precious masks is sufficient. As a result of the city’s existing infectious response team, Weslaco had 750 N95 masks in stock prior to the pandemic reaching the Rio Grande Valley, according to the city’s news release.

In addition, just last week, the city received a shipment of 2,000 N95 masks and 500 surgical masks for distribution among fire, EMS and police, the statement reads.

Approximately 500 of those N95 masks came via the Hospital Preparedness Coalition, which includes every hospital in the region, as well as some EMS departments, said Capt. Gus Ramirez, one of the three designated infection control officers for the city.

But union officials worry the masks are insufficient. Hernandez, the union vice president, called them “light duty N95s.”

Ramirez clarified, saying the masks are different — model 8000 masks — but they’re manufactured by 3M, just like the ones Weslaco paramedics are accustomed to using. “These masks obviously are a little different… nonetheless, they are N95 masks, and they are medical grade,” Ramirez said.

The CDC includes 3M 8000 model masks in its list of acceptable PPE to use for COVID-19 response. In a report on N95 respirator stockpiles the CDC published on Feb. 28, it wrote that, “The 3M 8000 is no longer produced; however, it should still be effective at protecting workers if the straps are intact and there are no visible signs of damage.”

The CDC added that the masks “performed favorably when evaluated against the NIOSH approval requirements…”

In regard to the three firefighters who were told to stay home, two of them were told to do so after routine temperature checks at the start of their shifts showed them to be running fevers. The third was told to stay home after requesting a sick day to help care for a spouse who was experiencing gastrointestinal issues, but displaying no other symptoms related to COVID-19.

Peña said the trio was told they couldn’t return to work until cleared to do so, but were not given instructions on how to obtain that clearance. Furthermore, the firefighters were required to use their existing paid time off during the city-mandated stay home order.

With no clear guidance, the firefighters sought medical advice and testing on their own, Peña said. “Our administration comes off and says, ‘Well, we never sent you to get COVID tested. You did that on your own, so you’re not gonna be covered,’” Peña said.

The fire chief declined to answer questions about why the three men were sent home, saying it was a personnel issue; however, Weslaco City Manager Mike Perez did address the issue. Perez said employees who have a fever cannot report for duty. It’s something codified in the mayor’s emergency declaration.

Perez said any city employee who has to stay home as a result of becoming ill with COVID-19 will be covered under the city’s workers’ compensation insurance, which is administered by the Texas Municpal League. “Our workers’ comp provider has already told us if it’s related to COVID it’s covered under workers’ comp. It’s considered an injury at work,” Perez said during an interview Tuesday.

Perez likened the issue to an employee breaking a limb while on the job, saying the city would take care of that employee. “But if you’re off (duty) and you break your leg off duty, then you gotta figure it out,” he said.

Perez’s responses were less clear when pressed to explain why the three firefighters who were told to stay home by their supervisors have had to use their own paid time off for those days. “There was no indication that they had any contact with anyone who has COVID-19,” he said.

He also criticized union officials for stepping outside the union’s contractual grievance and appeals process by going to the press with their concerns. “They’re circumventing the collective bargaining contract and they’re going to the media,” Perez said.

“You have a contract. Follow the contract,” he said.

But Peña and Hernandez say they have been sounding an alarm for months to no avail — as far back as February, when the union learned several members of the IDRU had been deployed to San Antonio for what they would later learn was a classified mission to assist with COVID-19 patients at Lackland Air Force Base.

The six members of the IDRU were called up in two separate groups, with three men at a time serving six-day deployments. In a Feb. 27 email sent to Mayor David Suarez by the fire chief, Lopez explained the deployment came at the order of the “State of Texas and the Emergency Medical Task Force.”

He further added that state officials had designated the mission as classified, limiting the amount of information that could be shared outside of the response team. “This operation has been issued as “Classified” by the State with limited information coming out of The State to those not in the operation and or discussion of this operation by us,” Lopez wrote to the mayor.

After their six-day deployments, where they worked in contact with COVID-19 patients who had been transported to the base from cruise ships, the IDRU members returned to Weslaco and went back on duty the same day of their returns.

Peña said that decision put firefighters and residents at risk. “They gambled with us. They took that chance with us. And that really bothers us because we have families, we have kids. We have moms and dads and grandpas that are at high risk,” Peña said.

The IDRU members themselves dispute that, saying they received clearance from state and CDC officials prior to returning from San Antonio, and further, that they notified Hidalgo County health officials of their statuses, as well.

“Not one single person got sick from up there,” said the IDRU’s Lt. Rich Stubbs, who served as the task force leader on the second deployed team.

“When everybody left, they actually signed a form that stated that they didn’t have any breach of personal protective equipment, and that they didn’t have any exposures while we’re up there. Because it’s not considered an exposure unless you come in contact with a patient without your personal protective equipment,” Stubbs said.

Capt. Ramirez, also deployed to San Antonio. He refuted allegations that he and the other IDRU members were deployed without being made aware of the nature of the mission. “Not only did everyone knew what they were up against and told exactly what we were gonna be dealing with, but everybody was given the opportunity to say you know what, never mind type of thing, I’m not interested,” Ramirez said.

Meanwhile, the union leadership hopes the city administration will be more transparent moving forward. “I personally want to see accountability,” Peña said.

Despite the harsh and public criticism from his own firefighters, Lopez said he welcomes the opportunity for the department to learn and evolve its response to an unprecedented situation. “Our department is bigger than any one of us. We are workers in this department just like anyone else. … Our job is to continue to respond and serving the city of Weslaco,” the fire chief said.