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Coronavirus Florida: Former University of Miami soccer player working on the frontline at Massachusetts fire department

Mark Spezia Special to The Post
Walton Sun

Kate Howarth chuckles when recalling a pre-coronavirus pandemic ambulance run she and a partner were on a few years ago.

"The patient was experiencing flu-like symptoms and, sure enough, we both ended up getting sick," said Howarth, the former University of Miami soccer standout who is now EMS director for the Norfolk, Mass., fire department. "It's so funny to look back at considering where we are now because we never even thought about wearing masks in that situation. Sometimes, we'd put a mask on the patient, but that's it."

These days, Howarth, also a firefighter, does not even entertain thoughts of leaving her N95 mask behind. Same goes for her gloves, eye protection, face shield and protective gown.

It's all part of the new procedures adopted for a new normal during the age of COVID-19 for thousands of front-line workers like Howarth and her colleagues. Although, such procedures were a work in progress as the coronavirus began spreading.

"We are used to having a set of protocols for every situation, but this was an entirely new situation none of us were really trained for," she said. "There was an adjustment period where we were told to do 'A' and then told not to do 'A' anymore, but 'B'. It took some time to grasp this new set of circumstances."

Howarth, one of the department's two female members, does not don all of that equipment every time she answers a call, but keeps it close. Dispatchers determine what she needs after asking callers a series of questions.

"We usually don't know what, exactly, we are putting on until we are en route," said Howarth, who works two 24-hour shifts per week. "Masks, eye protection and gloves are automatic, but if the patient is experiencing coronavirus symptoms, everything else goes on. Before March, we only wore gloves on every call."

As of Thursday, Massachusetts ranked third in the nation with 62,205 coronavirus cases, including 5,567 in Norfolk County which has a population of 706,775.

The number of cases Howarth's department is encountering has decreased lately, but every run comes with an added layer of anxiety. Is this person with a broken leg, for example, also carrying the coronavirus?

Howarth, who has been with the department for seven years, is also meeting all patients at their front doors, provided they are able, to avoid entering residences.

"At one point, we were seeing people with symptoms every day while also learning of those we treated for something else earlier now testing positive," she said. "The department's morale has been up and down as everybody reacts to stress differently. I try to help everybody keep a positive attitude, but there are no more run-of-the-mill, easy medical calls."

Another issue has been keeping enough protective equipment in stock which also falls on Howarth's shoulders as EMS Director.

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"That has been an extreme challenge, but we are lucky to have a chief who is well-connected with people to have access to those things, which is a blessing," she said.

Norfolk's chief — Erron Kinney — represents the department's other Florida connection. He played tight end for the Gators from 1996-99 before spending six seasons with the Tennessee Titans. Kinney has been a firefighter since retiring from the NFL in 2006.

"Kate is a spitfire -- tough, hardworking with a no nonsense approach to her job," said Kinney, who took over the department last year. "She has handled working during these unprecedented times very well. As EMS director, Kate has kept us up to date with the ever-changing landscape and impact of this pandemic."

Like others in her line of work, Howarth's biggest fear is bringing the coronavirus home. She lives with spouse Deb Nelson, a elementary and middle school occupational therapist who has been working remotely.

"We are all taking every precaution, but coronavirus has been become another risk of the job we've vowed to do, just like running into a burning building," Howarth said.

As if the challenges coronavirus has brought to Howarth's job were not enough to deal with, it has also put her quest to return to the National Women's Soccer League after a seven-year absence on hold.

Following a Miami career which included second-team All-ACC honors as a junior, Howarth, a dangerous forward, signed with the NWSL's Boston Breakers in 2013, but was released prior to the end of the season.

A year later, Howarth rejoined the New England Mutiny, with whom she had spent the summer of 2012 prior to her final season with the Hurricanes. The Mutiny were a Women's Premier League Elite team before joining United Women's Soccer in 2016.

The 28-year-old enjoyed her most productive season last year when she was named UWS Offensive Player of the Year after finishing with 20 goals and four assists in 12 games.

"I was talking to (Munity owner) Joe Ferrara after last season and came away thinking I am still at a good age and playing well enough to give the NWSL another shot," said Howarth, who also coaches the varsity girls team at nearby Canton High School.

Conversations with coaches at the NWSL Draft in January led to a spot on the Orlando Pride's 38-player preseason roster. Teams are allowed to carry 22 active players and four supplemental players during the regular season.

The team began cutting players after the first week, but Howarth survived. The NWSL then suspended all activities March 17 as the second week of preseason practice began and Howarth returned to Norfolk.

The department is allowing her to rejoin the Pride when practice resumes, which is tentatively scheduled for May 15.

"This is really exciting after training through the fall and winter in hopes of a NWSL team giving me a chance," said Howarth, who is using vacation time during preseason practice. "The whole department has been very understanding and supportive of me chasing this dream. I'll have to survive more cuts, of course, but I've never doubted my abilities."

A Michigan native, Howarth was a three-time, first-team All-Stater at Flint Powers Catholic High School and played for the elite Michigan Hawks travel team before joining the Hurricanes in 2009. She still ranks among Miami's top ten in career goals (21) and points (50).

Howarth became intrigued by firefighting while still attending Miami after watching one of her friends join the profession. The spark was lit.

"That put firefighting on my radar as a career path in addition to soccer," Howarth said. "I loved the idea of working with a team to help people every day. Fortunately, I found a way to make it happen."

Following her time with the Breakers, Howarth volunteered to ride along with area fire departments and then-Norfolk Fire Chief Coleman Bushnell accepted her offer. She has been with the department in some capacity ever since.

Howarth said her position with the department will likely be temporarily filled if she makes the Pride's regular season roster, but she will be welcomed back following the season.

"That's what makes this the perfect time for an NWSL comeback because I have a great career to return to no matter what happens," Howarth said. "I feel very fortunate, even in these challenging times."

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This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.