By Tom Henderson • Staff Writer • 

City of McMinnville responds to pandemic

While firefighters, medical personnel and other frontline responders around the globe grapple with a shortage of personal protective equipment in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, McMinnville Fire Chief Rich Leipfert said his crews are lucky.

“We have an outstanding group of scroungers,” Leipfert told city councilors March 24 as they discussed the city’s response to the crisis and the availability of protective gear, known as PPE.

“Fortunately, we’re in a rural community where there’s a lot of farming industry and a lot of wine industry that requires similar types and levels of PPE for certain levels of work,” he said. “There have been a lot of folks out there being supportive of us.”

In fact, Leipfert said, he is able to supply some surplus gear to the county health department and other agencies dealing with the pandemic. Meanwhile, he said, he has ordered more masks and other equipment from a vendor in China as well as 3M, the leading producer of protective masks in the United States.

Delivery is slow these days, he said.

Calls to the fire department haven’t spiked recently, City Manager Jeff Towery told councilors. “Our call volume is actually steady, but the nature of our calls are affecting our response time.”

“We’re seeing more calls that include symptoms that could be attached to the COVID-19 virus, so we’re enacting particular field protocols and cleaning time, especially, that is limiting our ability to meet our response time standards,” he said.

A fourth ambulance has been added to speed response time, he said.

Firefighters have been working overtime to respond to calls, Leipfert said; all have done so voluntarily. “I think all of our crews understand the nature and severity of the situation that we’re in,” he said.

“The challenge that we have is normally the folks that we work with at the fire department are used to placing themselves in harm’s way, but this is something different,” said Leipfert. “They’re working through the dynamic of family potentially being in harm’s way. It’s a whole different perspective for them.”

A professional counselor is available to work with firefighters, he said.

Protocols for firefighters have changed under the Oregon Health Authority, Leipfert said. No firefighters are quarantined unless they exhibit specific symptoms related to COVID-19.

“Our goal is to make sure we’re wearing PPE on every call so we don’t have to worry about the quarantine,” he said.

Towery told councils that city facilities, including playgrounds, have been closed to the public. In addition, 80 city employees (roughly 34% of the city’s workforce) are working from home.

“Obviously, police, fire, water reclamation facility and our public works field crews are not in that position,” Towery said. “Those folks are continuing to work and practice our health protocols and social distancing. The balance of our employees are working in offices where they’re able to comply with social distancing requirements.”

In terms of call volume, police are roughly in the same position as the fire department, “busier than normal” but not extraordinary, he said.

Public work crews stagger their schedules, so only a few are working together at any single time.

City officials also want to make sure some provision is made for the homeless, Towery said.

“We’ve deployed hand-washing and sanitation services for people without homes and are exploring shelter solutions with providers and other stakeholders,” he said.

He asked councilors to approve a program where local residents could help each other pay their utility bills. The city would provide matching funds for the donations.

Councilors agreed to approve Towery’s proposal and asked him to return with specific language at a subsequent meeting.

Mayor Scott Hill was the only member of the council in the chambers. He was joined by City Recorder Claudia Ciseneros and technical support personnel while the rest of the council met through teleconferencing technology.

“We are creating history tonight with the council,” Hill said. “This is our first electronic meeting that I am aware of.”

Hill said he has participated in three calls with Gov. Kate Brown and fellow mayors over the past two weeks.

“We have an update if she’s going to make any announcements,” he said. “She’s let each mayor speak to concerns that they would have, so there’s a two-way dialogue.”

Hill said he is also in communication with the League of Oregon Cities and various state departments, such as the Oregon Health Authority. There has been a countywide conference call with the commissioners and school districts and other mayors.

“Our website has all of the critical communication that we’ve received. Go to our website for complete updates as they relate to the virus.”

He stressed every level of city government is responding to the crisis.

“Water is going to continue to be available, as well as electric and all of those essential services that are provided by Water & Light are still going,” he said. “We’re not going to disconnect any individuals for nonpayment.”

Towery said city employees have more than risen to the challenges in recent days.

“People who work for the city of McMinnville are not shrinking from their responsibilities,” Towery told councilors. “They are stepping up in a way that makes me incredibly proud. I hope that you’re all proud of them as well.”


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