'It's really tough': Bay Area firefighters face big risks, challenges on frontlines battling COVID-19

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Before most COVID-19 patients are treated by nurses and doctors at the hospital, there is one group that comes to help them first.

"If someone calls for a COVID emergency, we are going to be first ones there," says Zac Unger. He is President of the Oakland Firefighters Union.

And there have been a lot of those types of 911 calls, especially with the recent surge in COVID-19 cases here in the Bay Area.

Once on scene, these first responders are in direct contact with potential COVID-19 positive patients.

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"We end up having to go into a person's house, which is an enclosed space, and often having to carry people out physically, because of the COVID virus, they are too weak to walk. So, we actually have a lot of close contact with COVID patients," explains Unger

Armed with PPE, Unger says they are sometimes still forced to wear more elaborate respirators or even special gowns. There are other risks as well, such as coming into contact with other family members on scene, who may not be sick, but could be asymptomatic.

Unger says those risks place a huge burden on their own families.

"We have to deal with the difficulty of, 'Should I go home to my family? Can I bring this home to my kids? What level of comfort do they have with us?' I mean it's really tough. Sometime your kids don't want to give you a hug when you get home from work because they are scared about what you did at work," says Unger.

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All of Oakland's 435 firefighters were able to get vaccinated in the first tier of vaccinations.

In Contra Costa County, firefighters will begin getting vaccinated on Monday.

Steve Hill, with the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, says firefighters, paramedics and EMTs will still need to wear PPE for the next couple of months, but adds that getting vaccinated is still an important step.

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"It's very important to us, of course, (that) we maintain our ability to be operational. We can't do that with COVID infected employees. So, we are hoping the vaccine is going to help us reduce that risk substantially," say Hill.

Despite the personal toll, Unger says it's an honor to serve the community. But he ends by saying they also need the community's help.

"I feel like if we can all really buckle down, stay down, wear your mask, we can get through this," says Unger.

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