Public health officials in the U.S. have for days urged people to practice social distancing, self-isolation and other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but those options often aren’t available to police officers and other emergency personnel.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising law enforcement to carry gloves, wash hands as often as possible and minimize close contact with people while on the job. But it’s impossible for a sheriff’s deputy to maintain social distancing when placing someone under arrest.
“We already take on inherent risk to our personal safety just entering into this profession,” Jefferson County Sheriff Dave Marshak said. “There’s always the threat of violence against us. So as we navigate the complexities of the virus ... (this) will have to be approached differently.”
Marshak said his deputies are now carrying hand sanitizer when they go on patrol, and like many area departments are now taking nonemergency calls over the phone. But his outlook on the health of his deputies is bleak.
“I think our risk for exposure is incredibly high,” Marshak said. “I think it’s inevitable at some point ... but I’m also optimistic in terms of our resiliency to handle this.”
The St. Louis and St. Louis County Police Departments, the Missouri State Highway Patrol and St. Charles County Police Department confirmed they are following the guidance of the CDC when it comes to the health of officers. The CDC advises law enforcement to use household disinfectant sprays or wipes to clean their duty belts and gear before putting them on for a shift.
In Illinois, which has rapidly surpassed 400 cases of COVID-19, St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson said his deputies’ patrol cars are stocked with gloves, Lysol and paper towels. In his 40 years of law enforcement, Watson said he’s never seen a crisis like this one.
“When you’re talking to people, you don’t necessarily have to stand right next to them,” Watson said. “You can keep your distance ... it’s not only to protect police. We can get coronavirus and maybe not even know it. We’re also protecting the public.”
Watson said his officers and staff are heeding the directive to stay isolated for two weeks if they begin to feel ill. But that has presented challenges.
“My biggest worry is I have so many people sick around here, I don’t have people around to run the operation,” Watson said. “And I’m not immune to it either.”
The CDC is advising EMS workers to carry specialized respirator masks, eye protection and gowns, alongside the standard gloves. Emergency dispatchers have been instructed to ask callers about possible exposure to COVID-19 so first-responders can take precautions.
“If they’re positive with any (symptom) on the radar right now, the responders are notified,” said John Romeo, deputy chief medical officer for the St. Charles County Ambulance District. “They know to wear personal protective equipment, and also take additional measures.”
Responses to medical emergencies are also being pared down. A patient will likely be treated by two EMS workers as normal, but without also being surrounded by firefighters and a police officer if they’re not needed, Romeo said.
Chesterfield police Sgt. Keith Rider said his department has discussed protocol for officers if they interact with a person who’s symptomatic. But he isn’t deeply worried.
“It’s more the realization that it doesn’t go away for a while,” Rider said. “We’ve got to buckle down and prepare for it, and still keep serving the public.”