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Surge affecting city’s staffing

Public safety departments coping with absences due to coronavirus

The Altoona area has the most lax attitude toward the coronavirus that employees of a testing firm have seen, Altoona’s emergency management chief said in a recent report.

“(AMI) remarked that they have done testing all over the country,” the report said. “They have been staying in Altoona hotels and using Altoona restaurants and stated that the Altoona area has the most laxed attitude towards the virus they have seen anywhere.”

AMI Expeditionary Healthcare operated a temporary COVID-19 testing site in the days before Thanksgiving at the Blair County Convention Center.

Tim Hileman, city fire chief and emergency management director, in his most recent COVID-19 Situation Report, related a conversation with AMI officials.

Hileman hopes that lax attitude will change — and one that may need to change, if the city is to avoid a shortfall of workers caused by the coronavirus.

Despite significant COVID-19 absences, the city’s public safety departments have been able to do what’s expected of them, but if the local outbreak continues to grow, “it could get to the point where we need to ask for mutual aid,” Hileman said Thursday.

Forestalling that eventuality will depend on public cooperation with masking, staying home, avoiding congested places and generally following medical advice, because infection levels in the city workforce — especially first responders who can’t work at home — reflect infection levels in the community, Hileman said.

Currently, there are three firefighters and 13 police officers out of work — isolating because of COVID-19 infections or quarantining because of exposures or suspected infections, Hileman said.

Because of budget constraints, the city workforce was vulnerable to COVID-19 losses even before the pandemic, being “pretty much at critical” levels then, Hileman said.

Since the pandemic began, every department has had at least one person isolating or quarantining, Hileman said.

Currently, 6.5 percent of the city’s 250-person workforce is currently off because of the coronavirus, according to Hileman.

Despite its high number of officers out, the police department is “doing pretty well” — covering shifts assigned to those who are absent with overtime, Hileman said.

And most officers who have been out have returned “fairly quickly,” he said.

Like Hileman, City Manager Ken Decker emphasized the need for community cooperation.

“The more people in the community protect themselves, the more they protect city workers,” he said.

“We’re finding a way to make things work,” Decker said. “But we don’t have unlimited capacity.”

Still, “failure is not an option,” he said.

At the time of the Nov. 20 situation report, UPMC Altoona had more than 80 COVID-19 inpatients, with 18 on ventilators, according to the report.

“Hospitals in Blair County have been on divert status not taking new patients and sending them to hospitals outside the area,” the report states. “This is a direct result of the high number of inpatients. We can see this continuing unless the community spread slows.”

UPMC Altoona is handling the crisis so far, according to UPMC spokeswoman Danielle Sampsell.

” All hospitals are feeling the effects of the demand,” Sampsell wrote in an email Thursday. “We can’t speak to non-UPMC facilities, but inside UPMC and specifically UPMC Altoona and UPMC Bedford, we’re still able to meet the demands of people who need inpatient care, whether on an inpatient unit or in an ICU, for their COVID-19 or other illness.”

The local hospital’s census fluctuates continuously as inpatients are admitted and discharged, and the hospital adjusts accordingly, Sampsell wrote. “UPMC hospitals are providing all services; our emergency departments are open, and we are prepared to care for all patients,” she wrote.

Younger people are being hospitalized with the disease, many in their 40s and 50s, according to Hileman’s Nov. 20 report.

At the time of the report, there were also “active outbreaks” at the Altoona Center for Nursing Care and the Hollidaysburg Veterans Home, with the National Guard helping at the vets home, according to the report.

“Our overall threat from the coronavirus is high,” the Nov. 20 report states. “Spikes in cases, the lack of contact tracing and undisciplined quarantining and isolation will continue this trend until a vaccine is available.”

On Thursday, the state reported 98 new cases for Blair County, bringing the total to 4,607, with 73 deaths, including three new deaths.

Hileman has been working with the police department, AMED, Logan Township police, the Van Zandt VA Medical Center, the Blair County Emergency Management Department and the state Department of Health on a plan to vaccinate first responders countywide. It is hoped that will be followed eventually by vaccinations of others, according to priority, then of the general public, he said.

The groups did a vaccination exercise in the Van Zandt parking lot Oct. 11, based on the VA’s drive-thru flu vaccination protocol, Hileman said.

First-responder vaccinations could occur as early as the end of the month, but are more likely to happen after New Year’s Day, Hileman said.

The plan calls for vaccinating 2,500 first responders over a 24- to 48-hour period, he said.

First responders are to be vaccinated as part of Phase 1 in the three-phase state vaccination plan, Hileman said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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