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Four Ripon firefighters positive for COVID-19
19 covid

Four Ripon firefighters are currently at home recovering after testing positive for the COVID-19 virus.

They are the first cases that the Ripon Consolidated Fire District – which operates an ambulance service – has had since the outbreak of the pandemic a year ago.

According to Fire Chief Dennis Bitters, it is unknown where the four firefighters came into contact with the virus, but three of the four work together on the same shift and the fourth was filling in for another firefighter that was out sick with another illness.

“I think that one of the big takeaways here is that as not as a fire department but as an emergency ambulance department we have been dealing with COVID and other communicable diseases from the very beginning and these are the first positive tests that we have had,” Bitters said. “I think that’s a testament to the policies and procedures that we have in place and the levels that our staff go to in order to protect themselves and the public.

“We’re not as concerned about picking this up on the job – this is a virus that is being spread heavily throughout the community, and we’re always worried about our people getting it from somewhere in the community where they aren’t as protected.”

Attempts to track where the exposure occurred, Bitters said, revealed no immediate calls where they could have come into contact with somebody that was positive and symptomatic, and steps have been taken inside of the firehouse since the very beginning of the pandemic to protect the firefighters not only from those that they come into contact within the community, but one another as well.

The degree to which firefighters have been observing those protocols, he said, is a big reason why this is the first time that anybody in the department has come down with the virus.

“When they’re in the rig together they’re wearing N95 masks because they’re within six feet of one another, and when they’re cooking, they’re wearing N95 masks and when they’re sitting down at the end of the day, they’re wearing masks,” Bitters said. “We sanitize the fire house twice-a-day – we sterilize our ambulances. But when these guys go out into the community, they aren’t in a controlled environment like this anymore – you’re more at risk in the community than you are at our own stations.”

According to the San Joaquin Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 dashboard, Ripon has seen 1,175 cases of the virus since the start of the pandemic and has seen 17 deaths. Ripon has the second-lowest case rate per 10,000 residents in the entire county – it’s 737.6 cases per 10,000 residents puts it only behind Tracy in terms of the lowest ratio, and slightly ahead of Manteca’s 754.72 cases per 10,000 residents.

An email that has been circulating online has claimed that the entire department – except for one member – has tested positive for the virus due to the fact that there was a party that many attended, and Bitters says that simply is not true. Once it was disclosed that one of the firefighters didn’t feel well and came back positive for the virus – and the other three started showing symptoms and learned the same – the entire department was tested and everybody else came back negative.

The idea that the firefighters have not been taking the pandemic seriously, as the email claimed, was also dispelled by Bitters.

“We’ve been offering free COVID testing at our station and have been working at vaccination clinics – there are some irresponsible comments that are being made out there because people don’t have to be held accountable for them,” Bitters said. “We’re doing whatever we have to do in order to provide the highest level of safety to our staff, and that translates directly to the public.

“I think that considering that these are the first positive tests we have had in almost a year shows that we’re taking this seriously.”

All four of the firefighters, Bitters said, are recovering and are expected to be back at work once they have passed the 10-day quarantine period as mandated by the Department of Public Health.

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.