The EG firefighter union is protesting Town Manager Andy Nota’s decision to give 5 members “quarantine” status instead of “injured on duty” (IOD) status after they tested positive for COVID-19 Nov. 24, then negative Nov. 28 and Dec. 1. Nota said the first tests were false positives.
A total of 20 firefighters and the office secretary tested positive for the virus days before Thanksgiving, throwing the department into a staffing crisis since that left only 8 firefighters to cover shifts at the two fire stations. North Kingstown Fire Department stepped in to help, taking over Station 2 on Frenchtown Road.
When the 5 firefighters tested negative twice, they were allowed to return to work. The other 15 firefighters are still out and their leave has been designated IOD. Nota said the fact the other 5 had no symptoms and tested negative twice meant the initial tests were false positives.
Union firefighter head Bill Perry vehemently disagreed.
“To sit there and say to these guys – and their wives and children, their family members are still quarantined – to sit there and say, it was just a false positive, that’s wrong,” Perry said. “We can’t have the town manager pick and choose who gets IOD.”
Although IOD pay comes tax free, the classification is not about the money, he said. It’s about health care should any of the firefighters come down with a COVID-related illness at a later date.
“You can’t expect people to work in the pandemic and expose them to high risk,” said Perry. “We do that, but we do that because we know we’ll be taken care of.”
Nota said he didn’t think it was about the money either but he questioned the accuracy of the tests.
They were administered by the North Kingstown Fire Department and they were processed by East Side Clinical Labs. According to Nota, a number of NK firefighters also first tested positive and subsequently tested negative, suggesting to him there might have been something wrong with the tests.
Health officials, however, say false positives with PCR tests are rare. “Generally speaking, if a test result comes back positive, it is almost certain that the person is infected,” says the Harvard Medical School website.
Nota said he recognized firefighters are on the COVID front line and noted a lot of town employees have been working through the pandemic putting themselves at risk. He mentioned the early voting at Town Hall in particular, where 3,000 residents cast ballots in the three weeks before the election.
“I feel how we’ve treated the 20 so far is very reasonable and very fair. I think the town compensates them very well for the dangerous work that they do,” Nota said. “As we progress through the investigative process, if we find they were positive … we’ll modify it and those individuals will receive back any differential.”
Fire Chief Bernie Patenaude did not respond before this article was posted.