The firefighters called to Alaska’s first COVID-19 case were quarantined. Officials say that won’t happen again.

The downtown Anchorage fire station. (Joey Mendolia / Alaska Public Media)

The quarantining of three firefighters who responded to Alaska’s first confirmed case of the coronavirus came out of caution, not because of a lapse, Anchorage’s fire chief said Monday.

The firefighters, who responded to a 911 call about the case last week, took standard measures to protect against infectious disease, said Chief Jodie Hettrick. But at the time, federal and other guidance about the best measures to specifically protect against COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, was not entirely settled, Hettrick added.

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“Because no one across the state or the nation was 100% comfortable with where we were, we just wanted to be cautious and make sure that our people are taken care of — and we didn’t miss something and then expose everybody else,” Hettrick said in an interview Monday. “This will not happen in the future — we believe the science is settled for how to prevent it and prevent exposure from our people.”

The decision to put the firefighters in quarantine actually came from state health officials, said Mike Stumbaugh, president of the Anchorage firefighters union.

“It’s just an abundance of caution,” he said.

The state’s first and only confirmed COVID-19 case, which the firefighters responded to, was a man described by health officials as a foreign cargo pilot. He had limited contact with other people before he was seen at the emergency room at Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage, officials said at a news conference last week.

Firefighters have adequate protective equipment to handle future coronavirus cases, which includes masks and also probably gowns, eye protection and gloves, Hettrick said. And the department has adopted a new policy where, except for urgent cases like heart attacks and serious trauma, just one responder will initially make contact with a patient or patient’s family, to assess the risk of coronavirus exposure, she added.

Firefighters have been working “hand in hand” with department chiefs and have been happy with the direction they’ve been given about how to respond to COVID-19, Stumbaugh said.

Hettrick said Anchorage residents and visitors should call 911 only if they have an urgent medical problem; otherwise, they should call their primary care provider or, if they don’t have one, they can call 211 for guidance.

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