COVID-19 takes toll on JoCo first responders, more than 270 county workers test positive since March

At least 14 workers with Johnson County Med-Act have tested positive for the disease, but that total is dwarfed by employees who have been impacted in the sheriff's office and corrections department. File photo.

The coronavirus has impacted everyone in Johnson County, but when it comes to the county’s payroll at least, first responders, parks, jail and developmental services employees have been most affected.

A tally of cases shows, overall, 272 county employees — about 7.3% of the county’s workforce — have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic in March through the end of November.

The most affected departments

Most impacted were departments whose employees could not work from home, according to a breakdown by departments provided to the Post by the county manager’s office.

Of those, first responders and corrections employees made up 104 infections, or nearly 40% of the total reported among county employees.

The sheriff’s department alone reported 60 infections, the most of any single department during that time period.

That was followed by:

  • parks and recreation, with 45 positive cases
  • corrections, with 30 cases
  • developmental services, with 28 cases
  • mental health, with 23 cases
  • and Johnson County Med-Act with 14.

Developmental services works with county residents who have developmental disabilities.

Departments impacted in different ways

The most affected departments line up differently when numbers are looked at as a percentage of total staff.

About 9% of the sheriff’s department and 9.5% of the ambulance service and 12.2% of corrections staff tested positive.

Other departments, with fewer total cases, saw higher percentages of their staffs impacted.

For instance, the county elections commission reported 23.5% and the parks department 14.6%. However those numbers are affected by the fact that those departments use many temporary and seasonal employees, whose positive tests are included.

The quarantines have not been attributed to significant changes in services. Although there have been many changes in how county services are delivered due to pandemic safety precautions, short staffing related to illness has not in itself caused any programs to be curtailed, county officials said.

How first responders have reacted

Jason Green, the emergency medical services chief for OPFD, survived COVID-19 after more than a month of hospitalization at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission. File photo.

Cases among first responders, however, have always been of concern because their contact with the public puts them at higher risk.

Three firefighters in Kansas City, Mo., have died since the pandemic began — two of them last month.

In Overland Park, Jason Green, chief of emergency medical services for the fire department, contracted the disease last spring and spent 18 days on a ventilator before eventually being released from the hospital.

Cold weather and the holidays have prompted more indoor gatherings, COVID-19 cases have surged in recent weeks. Local first responders say cases in their ranks, accordingly, have also been up.

The Johnson County Sheriff’s Department reported 13 active coronavirus cases as of Dec. 9, with an additional 16 employees quarantining due to contact.

In the Overland Park Police Department, there were 6 current cases among officers and staff out of a total of 30 since the beginning of the pandemic. That city’s fire department also reported five current positive cases last week out of a total of 23 since March.

And in Lenexa, four police and fire department employees were quarantining, with two positive tests reported.

Sheriff’s employees have N95 masks, gloves and other protective equipment so they can continue to show up in person for 911 calls, said Deputy Claire Canaan, department spokesperson. But there have also been some internal changes in how the department deals with staffing challenges.

“We have adapted to minimize the impact of COVID on our operations. Employees have been flexible in working across various divisions due to changes in workflows and in turn, have made positive budget impacts,” she said in an email response to questions from the Post.

“Our staff continues to perform duties of providing public safety, regardless of the increased risk of exposure to the virus, and we will continue to provide the exceptional service the citizens of Johnson County have come to expect from the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office,” she said.

Meanwhile, Med-Act has managed to avoid the worst of the case surge. That department reported no new active cases earlier this month as community transmission climbed, said Allyson Angell, spokesperson for Med-Act.

Medics have hoods with pressurized air to use when they encounter possible COVID-19 cases, and ambulances are rotated through an ozone sanitation process as well, she said. They also have special equipment to perform resuscitation that does not require direct mouth-to-mouth contact.

“Our department has been very good at keeping ourselves safe as well as keeping the members of the community safe so we neither contract nor spread the coronavirus,” Angell said.