‘Exhausted mentally and physically.’ How COVID-19 has affected SW Florida first responders.
The Southwest Florida people who rush into burning buildings, calm rattled 911 callers, or stare down a burglar holding a gun have battled a new adversary for the past 18 months; and their ranks are showing the fatigue.
With dozens upon dozens of the men and women in law enforcement, fire suppression, and emergency medical workers from throughout the region taking time off the job to recover or isolate from COVID-19, at least four members have succumbed to the disease.
"Our EMTs and paramedics are exhausted mentally and physically," Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais said, reflecting the general consensus.
The News-Press and Naples Daily News polled select agencies in Lee and Collier counties. The agencies keep differing levels of records relating to the pandemic, but all agree the workforce is weathering the storm. Here is what they have to say.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Southwest Florida residents weathered changes to keep people safe:
Schools turned to virtual learning, workers set up home offices and even more than a year later many still have the option of how many people they come in contact with in a day.
But the first responders who don't have the option to work from home have chosen to sacrifice themselves to continue to keep the community safe.
As another COVID-19 wave crashes on Southwest Florida, more and more first responders continue to contract the virus.
As of Monday, 935 patients have died of COVID-19 at Lee Health and 288 patients have died of COVID-19 at NCH since the beginning of the pandemic.
That doesn't include those who died at home or in other regional hospitals.
First responders toll
Since the beginning of August, four members of law enforcement have died in Lee County from COVID-19 complications and at least two first responders are hospitalized.
While many COVID-19 related deaths within law enforcement have been categorized as line of duty deaths, it could be difficult to prove where someone was infected with the virus, according to Fort Myers Police Lt. Jason Pate.
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Pate said the Human Resources department is looking into this exact issue.
"It is difficult to prove that someone was directly infected from a work contact and not an outside contact," Pate said.
Employees of the department who die in the line of duty have additional life insurance benefits and potential pension benefits for their beneficiary, he said.
As of August 2021, the Fort Myers Police department has had 110 employees test positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, public information officer with the department Kristin Capuzzi said.
The department currently has 359 employees, but the total number fluctuates, Capuzzi said, meaning about one in four has contracted the disease.
Dispatcher Shawn Boone has been their only death.
Since May 2020, 510 Lee County Sheriff's Office staff members contracted COVID-19 and three of them have died.
While the sheriff's office does not keep track of which employees are vaccinated, on Tuesday, Sheriff Carmine Marceno urged all LCSO staff to get the COVID vaccination.
The sheriff's office has its employees self-screen before going into work and supervisors are asked to conduct symptom assessments such as temperature screenings before each shift.
All employees should wear a mask in accordance with national and state guidance, along with any other local requirements, the sheriff's office said.
Employees are also encouraged to practice social distancing as work duties permit.
At the Collier County Sheriff's Office, it has had no deaths within the agency related to COVID-19.
In mid-August Collier County Sheriff's Office had 67 members out for COVID-19-related reasons. Some had tested positive and others were isolating because of exposure, according to Karie Partington, media relations bureau manager with the sheriff's office.
The Collier County Sheriff's Office has implemented a number of measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
"Our facilities are regularly fogged with disinfectant; when deputies respond to a call for service the dispatcher asks the caller to meet the deputy outside if possible to prevent close contact in an enclosed area; and vaccinations and personal protective equipment (PPE) are available to all members," Partington said.
Cape Coral Police Department also does not keep track of which employees are vaccinated, stating that is an employee's personal medical choice.
The department somewhat keeps track of how many employees have contracted COVID-19 as they are put on leave or quarantined, but their staffing has not seen any serious disruption, according to the department's public information officer Master Cpl. Philip Mullen.
"We are extremely thankful that in the CCPD's history, we have never lost an officer in the line of duty to anything, including COVID," Mullen said.
Collier County Emergency Medical Services has had four to five people out per week because of COVID-19.
Over the past few months the number of EMS employees testing positive for COVID-19 has doubled, according to Collier County EMS Chief Tabatha Butcher.
Since March 1, 2020, the agency had 45 employees test positive and no COVID-19 related deaths.
Collier County EMS has a total of 240 employees; so nearly one in five had contracted COVID.
They maintained their staffing by backfilling with overtime.
"We are operating normally, but employee absences due to COVID has had an impact on our schedule," Butcher said.
About a month ago the department reinstated a mask mandate for on-duty employees and it encouraged vaccinations for those who are not yet vaccinated.
"The last few months COVID has affected our workforce more than we saw last year at the height of COVID," she said.
Desjarlais said Lee County EMS is taking care of many more patients than they normally would be, just like everyone else in the healthcare industry.
"Just like hospital personnel caring for these patients, our EMTs and paramedics are exhausted mentally and physically," Desjarlais said.
But they continue to show up each day to take care of the people in the community.
For Greater Naples Fire Rescue District COVID-19 has put a strain on its budget as well as the firefighters.
As of August, three to 10 firefighters are out each day with COVID-19, according to district Chief Nolan Sapp.
The district has a total of 235 employees.
The pandemic increased its overtime budget and put a burden on the firefighters who have to work that overtime. The department sometimes mandates hours, he said.
The district also had to change how it runs medical calls, now using large engines instead of the smaller medical squads because the district is not fully staffed, Sapp said.
It also delayed the opening of a new fire station because there isn't enough personnel to staff it.
There is also the financial burden because of all of the personal protection equipment it must purchase. All personnel has to have full PPE and individuals have been going through more of it with the increase in COVID-19 and flu-like symptom calls they respond to.
First responder deaths, hospitalizations
As the emergency responders to continue to work, they also mourn their co-workers and offer support to those suffering the most.
On Aug. 4, City of Fort Myers Police Dispatcher Shawn Boone died of COVID-19 complications after serving the department for nearly four years.
On Aug. 16, Lee County Sheriff's Office Deputy First Class Steven Mazzotta died of COVID-19 complications after serving 18 years in the corrections bureau.
On Aug. 31, Lee County Sheriff's Office Deputy First Class William Diaz died of COVID-19 complications after serving three years in corrections.
On Sept. 1 Lee County Sheriff's Office member Wyvett Moore died of COVID-19 complications. She joined the agency in 2014 as a civilian corrections clerk and was promoted to a training officer in 2018. A few months ago she became a civil process server.
Deputy Sgt. Steve Drum, another member of the sheriff's office, was hospitalized due to COVID-19 on Aug. 1, but has shown signs of improvement. He was admitted to Cape Coral Hospital and is being treated for pneumonia.
Drum, who is on a ventilator, is starting to respond to his wife's voice after coming out of a medically induced coma.
For the past four weeks, Bayshore Fire Rescue Lt. Irv Menager has fought COVID-19 while in Cape Coral Hospital.
On Aug. 28, Bayshore Fire Rescue, with the help of Cape Coral Fire Department, made a "window" visit, where they waved and held signs of encouragement, according to a Bayshore Fire Rescue Facebook post.