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Record COVID infections force San Diego Fire-Rescue to shut down units

The San Diego Fire Department has issued an emergency brown out because of COVID-19. This means several units are being shut down temporarily because dozens of firefighters are in isolation. KPBS reporter Kitty Alvarado says this order is meant to make the most of the staff and resources.

The latest COVID-19 wave fueled by the omicron variant is taking down even the bravest.

San Diego Fire-Rescue on Monday reported over 100 firefighters and more than a dozen lifeguards in isolation, meaning they tested positive for COVID-19.

Chief Colin Stowell said this is unprecedented.

"Probably about three times as much as we saw during what we thought was then the peak of COVID for us," he said. "This is just numbers that we would have never imagined."

San Diego Fire and Rescue Department Station 1
Roland Lizarondo / KPBS
San Diego Fire-Rescue fire fighters at Station One in San Diego, Calif. Nov. 9, 2021.

Stowell said this has forced the fire department to implement its emergency staffing plan. Since the New Year, the fire department has shut down several units every day.

"By us going into this with a plan in picking the units that we are going to close down, we're trying to ensure the response times are not significantly impacted and they see longer wait times," he said. "We have made sure that there are units in those fire stations that can still respond to those emergencies, and if by chance that unit is already busy on another call and there's a subsequent call coming in that district, that it's in an area that's got fire engines real close by that can get in there quickly."

Adding to this, the City of San Diego's vaccine mandate deadline ends Monday. If employees are not vaccinated or have a valid exemption, they will be sent warning letters of termination.

Mayor Todd Gloria said this mandate is working and at 88% vaccinated employees are at an all-time high, making it safer for staff and the community. He also said too many are focusing on the impacts this may have on future staffing levels.

"We are moving forward with a number of contingency plans currently. It is not accurate to say the vaccine mandate will have operational impacts," Gloria said. "What is accurate to say is that we are currently suffering through operational impacts because of COVID-19."

Gloria said he is confident in the emergency plan Stowell is implementing.

"I trust his judgment and wisdom and making sure that our personnel and our apparatus are positioned in the right communities so that we can respond to emergencies as they happen," he said. "This is far from ideal, don't get it wrong; I would much prefer that we are not dealing with this situation."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shortened the isolation time for people who tested positive but were asymptomatic to five days. Stowell said this would help, but he expects this to worsen before it gets better.

"We do expect it to probably continue to climb and hopefully we reach that peak and plateau soon, but that was really our motivation to create this plan now and rather than wait until it was a dire emergency," he said.