Engine 17 cuts through a white wall of snow and rain, and Capt. Jeremy Norton is pretty sure this is going to make for a strange shift. Since the mid-April blizzard the day before, weather in Minneapolis has gone from biting cold to sunny to whiteout squalls so dense he can hardly see the roads.
“It is weird and unsettling,” Norton writes in his journal.
The fire crew pulls up to a house, where Norton and paramedics find a frail and elderly man who has fallen down. He says he hasn’t been sick. But he is warm to the touch and his oxygen levels are low. The paramedics suspect coronavirus. Norton fits the patient with an oxygen mask and helps escort him to the ambulance, stopping every few feet so the man can catch his breath.
The call leaves Norton anxious. He and his crew were wearing protective gloves, goggles and masks, but since it came in as a fall, not an infection, they hadn’t dressed in full protective suits. This reinforces Norton’s concern that every call could end up being a COVID-19 case, no matter how they’re dispatched. The crew returns to the station and begins the process of washing their hands and all their gear, down to their shoes, while trying to abide by social distancing.
“It is strange to keep our distance from one another, as the bonds of our job are what help us decompress and process the traumas we experience,” Norton writes. “I remind the crews that nurses have been doing it for years in hospital settings: germs are real and are deadly. Deal with it.”
Norton, 53, is a 20-year veteran of the fire department and a Minneapolis resident of 26 years. He serves as captain at Station 17, home of the Minneapolis firefighters responsible for medical and fire calls in the city’s southern region between Lake Harriet and Lake Hiawatha, stretching north-south from the Powderhorn neighborhood to Tangletown.
At the request of the Star Tribune, Norton kept a log of Station 17’s activity on April 13 and 14, omitting any data that would violate patient privacy. The document serves as a rare real-time glimpse into the world of a first responder on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic — one of those “essential workers” without the luxury of sheltering in place. Norton is in charge of not only helping slow the spread of the virus in the community, but also minimizing exposure to his crew. Just last week, the first firefighter in Minneapolis tested positive for the virus.
It’s been almost a month since Minnesota’s first COVID-19 death, and so far Minneapolis has been spared the devastation of hot spots like New York City, where medical personnel load dead bodies into refrigerated trucks, and where some firefighters say they’re reminded of Sept. 11, 2001.
That is to say, it hasn’t gotten that bad here yet. Norton knows the potential is out there — and the possibility may be greater than many of the people he serves understand.
“We are fortunate, here, that we have the opportunity to dodge this bullet,” he writes.
What happens next could depend in large part on people like him.
It’s 7 a.m., shift change, and Norton’s crew is on the garage floor, talking about their weekends and planning for the day. He notices the outgoing crew is gathered reading the paper and drinking coffee, not wearing masks.
“Off-going shift appears to believe that the end of their tour means the end of barriers and distancing,” he writes.
Norton is probably more cautious than most firefighters. He spends his off days catching up on the latest safety recommendations. During the last shift, he set new ground rules for his crew: no group meals, no sitting together on the couches, no clustering around a single computer, and always wearing masks.
The change doesn’t come naturally. Firefighters — people whose job is rushing into burning buildings — tend to be on the macho side. So it’s up to Norton to impress upon them the necessity of total caution when the threat comes in the form of invisible liquid droplets. “I have a good, thoughtful crew, but this an odd adjustment.”
They respond to an overdose call and find the patient in the thrall of drug abuse, barely breathing. They provide him oxygen and Narcan. He regains consciousness, his skin color returns and he’s able to walk to the ambulance.
As they leave the call, they wonder whether this man had been abiding any safety practices to avoid infection. All signs point to no. “He was raspy and sweaty, but that was likely from the drugs and respiratory failure. (Unless it wasn’t.)”
How many people aren’t taking this seriously? Driving the streets of Minneapolis, Norton sees people congregating too closely, not wearing masks. He has friends in New York City, in the medical field and otherwise, who have witnessed the truth about this virus — that it’s a killer. He worries most about the asymptomatic carriers, what he calls the “Trojan Horse” patients.
Norton’s crew wears protective gear for mutual protection, but also to send a message to the community: “Mask up, folks! None of us is too important, too tough, too cool. Protect yourself, protect your family, protect my family.”
The next call comes from a woman who’s been vomiting. She’s sick, but not like coronavirus sick. And she really doesn’t want to get it. Which makes her wary of all these people wearing masks, gloves and goggles trying to get her to come with them. Eventually she’s persuaded to climb into the ambulance and go to the hospital.
There’s a new type of call that’s been coming in since this whole thing started that Norton has termed “COVID-19-related anxiety.”
Engine 17 responds to such a case from an elderly man in an assisted-living facility. Norton enters the room alone and he recognizes the man from a similar call last week. The patient shows no symptoms of the virus — or any other illness — and he hasn’t left his room in a month, making him an unlikely candidate for infection. Yet he’s sure he’s got it.
Norton mentally diagnoses the man with watching too much cable news. He’ll only face greater risks in the emergency room, where people really are sick. “In bed at 3 a.m. is the perfect place to be,” Norton assures him.
The crew doesn’t have time to fall asleep before the next call comes: another overdose. The stay-at-home order has apparently made this woman stir crazy, and she decided to augment boredom with a lot of cocaine. Now she thinks she’s dying. Her vitals look OK, so they try to calm her.
“The paramedics take her aboard the ambulance to speak further, as the half-dozen police officers who responded (it is a slow night) are not helping our patient calm down.”
They respond to the same house twice to find a man who is not well, but due to excess drinking and smoking, rather than coronavirus. He falls down and they help him up. His wife is upset. When they get back to the station, they need to change clothes — not to decontaminate so much as to rid their clothes of the cigarette odor.
They respond to another overdose call, this one in a car. “Across the city, rigs are running to as many, if not more, OD calls as ordinary,” writes Norton. “Heroin abounds, pandemic or not.”
They eat dinner “together-ish,” meaning far enough apart. This is an odd wrinkle of the present circumstances. Firefighters crews are like families, and quality time in between calls is important. “It serves as a bond to process the difficult things we encounter, it protects against isolation and depression and emotional trauma. It breaks the tension.”
Last week, on her birthday, the rookie cooked dinner for the crew and they sat far apart like a “feuding family.”
The rookie. That’s a whole other matter. Norton is supposed to be training her. Just last week she saw her first corpse. Heart complications, dead on arrival. She’d handled this aspect of the job well. “Somber but solid.” But with new protocols to minimize exposure to infection, she spends most of her time standing on lawns awaiting instructions.
“Her class has the singular fate of beginning their careers in this pandemic,” writes Norton. “Hard to provide much hands-on, face-to-face, real-life training when we are social distancing, minimizing patient exposure, and limiting all activities.”
After dinner, they call into their first-ever digital union meeting via Zoom. “The mute button proves confounding for some.”
The night is quiet. They get more than six uninterrupted hours, which is rare for an overnight. The next morning, their relief arrives. Norton’s crew is done for now.
“We will disperse to our respective home lives, which might be more chaotic and lonely even than our past 48 hours,” he writes. “Work is a boon. The new shift will clean everything again and wait to see what the city has in store.”