Winnipeg fire-paramedic station reopens after concerns about possible COVID-19 exposure

A Winnipeg fire station has been reopened after concerns its workers may have been exposed to COVID-19 Thursday morning, the city councillor for Transcona says.

Triggered by medical call in which body was removed from Transcona condo, sources tell CBC

Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Station No. 21 was placed under isolation on Thursday morning, following potential COVID-19 exposure. It was reopened Thursday afternoon. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

A Winnipeg fire station is open again, after closing Thursday morning due to concerns its workers may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Workers at Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Station No. 21, on Regent Avenue W. in Transcona, were put under isolation as a precaution.

A city spokesperson confirmed emergency crews responded to a medical call Thursday morning. The call initially did not indicate the presence of flu-like symptoms — but that assessment changed once crews arrived.

"As crews gathered more information, it was determined they may have been at risk of coming into contact with a patient with COVID-19," the spokesperson said in an email.

The CBC has confirmed with three separate sources that the medical call took place at a condominium building on Philip Lee Drive, several blocks north of the fire hall.

On Thursday afternoon, crews covered head-to-toe in protective clothing and masks could be seen removing a body bag from the condo building and loading it into a hearse. A city spokesperson couldn't provide any details about why a body was taken from the scene, citing health privacy rules.

Crews could be seen clad in protective gear at the scene of a medical call in Transcona Thursday that sources say led to the temporary closure of a nearby fire hall earlier in the day. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Neighbours told CBC News they saw several police cruisers and two ambulances at the condo building before noon, and that no one was allowed to enter or leave for about an hour.

Later in the afternoon, members of the police forensic unit and medical examiner's team could be seen in full protective suits and face masks. Some of them washed the handles of the building's front door.

There has been no official confirmation the medical call was related to COVID-19, and Manitoba Health did not respond to requests from CBC News.

Police wipe down the front door handles of the condo building Thursday. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

City Coun. Shawn Nason (Transcona) said the fire station was reopened after consultation with public health authorities.

"It was determined the risk of exposure to WFPS employees was negligible to non-existent," Nason said in a statement.

Isolating the station's personnel was not expected to affect emergency service.

The city's spokesperson said emergency services implemented protocols for dealing with possible COVID-19 cases on Jan. 10. Those guidelines include wearing personal protective equipment like masks and contacting hospitals ahead of time when bringing in a patient who has flu-like symptoms, or has possibly had contact with the virus.

More planning needed: union

Firefighters union spokesperson Alex Forrest said he's worried there aren't proper protocols in place for dealing with front-line emergency workers who might be exposed to the virus through work.

"We arrive on the scene first and that's the most dangerous time, because many times we don't know what to expect when we get there," said Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg.

He said he wants to see steps taken, like sending fewer people to respond to less-serious calls or adding isolation areas to ambulances, to help mitigate the risk of exposure for firefighters while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread.

Handwritten signs on the windows of Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Station No. 21 on Thursday announced the station's temporary closure. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Forrest said serious discussions are needed about how to fill any staff shortages caused by the virus, like asking firefighters to return from holidays or paying significant overtime wages.

"We could have a very dire situation where we could have 20, 30, 40 per cent of our firefighters that are off in quarantine dealing with coronavirus and that puts stress on the resources to be able to deal with emergencies," he said.

"We can handle one station to be closed. We might even be able to handle two or three stations closed. But what happens if we have five or six stations closed all at the same time?"

Manitoba identified three presumptive cases of the novel coronavirus on Thursday.

The city spokesperson said the city will continue to update its precautionary measures as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves.