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Salt Lake’s first responders assure ‘we are very prepared for this outbreak’

Priscila Nielsen, an advanced emergency medical technician for the Unified Fire Authority, wears a COVID-19 suit at Station 126 in Midvale on Thursday, March 19, 2020.
Priscilla Nielsen, an advanced emergency medical technician for the Unified Fire Authority, wears a COVID-19 suit at Station 126 in Midvale on Thursday, March 19, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s first responders say they are ready to continue doing their jobs with only slight modifications in how they interact with the public in light of COVID-19.

The Unified Fire Authority on Thursday announced that EMTs are now mandated to wear protective masks on every response. They will also continue to wear protective eyewear and gloves, said UFA spokesman Matthew McFarland.

“We are cautiously changing our approach,” he said.

Emergency dispatchers will also do a pre-screening with callers now to ask if a patient is showing potential symptoms of COVID-19, McFarland said. If crews come in contact with someone who is a potential high-risk for carrying the virus, a single EMT will wear a protective gown that covers from a person’s neck to their feet, as well as protective footwear.

Crews who respond to potential high-risk calls will also be required to change their uniforms when they return to their fire station and immediately wash the ones they were just wearing, McFarland said. If necessary, those crews may also be isolated for a time.

In Salt Lake City, both police and fire crews have been issued protective masks and gloves when interacting with the public.

Salt Lake police detective Greg Wilking said 911 dispatchers will now ask people if they are exhibiting any symptoms of the coronavirus before first responders arrive. Both the police and fire departments say it won’t slow down their response time. But if they know in advance they could be coming in contact with a COVID-19 patient, they can take precautions before they get there,

“You will still receive the same level of professional care,” said Salt Lake Fire Capt. Anthony Burton.

But he said it may look a little different. For people who are showing possible symptoms, firefighters and paramedics will wear protective eyewear and a gown in addition to plastic gloves.

Also, once a person is identified as a possible COVID-19 carrier, only one firefighter will evaluate that patient, and from more of a distance than usual.

“If we arrive on scene and identify that this individual or individuals may exhibit symptoms, we’ll actually withdraw if we don’t have our protective layers on, place those protective elements in place, and send one individual — so we reduce our exposure to our crews — to interact with those who may be sick or ill,” Burton said.

Patients will also be given a mask to wear while being evaluated. And if they don’t need treatment at a hospital, they may be asked to isolate at home until the virus has passed, Burton said.

“Law enforcement and fire department, we’re a limited resource. So if our personnel get sick, we can’t help the public. We’re here to help you,” he said.

The Salt Lake City Fire Department posted a short video on its social media pages explaining what this new response might look like.

If emergency crews are called to treat someone who needs immediate help, such as a person injured by a car crash or gunshot, they will receive immediate care. And then crews will take COVID-19 precautions if necessary once a patient is stabilized.

The video also emphasized this is something they are ready to handle.

“We are very prepared for this outbreak. Similar to other pandemics such as SARS and swine flu, the department has had plans in place for 40 years,” Burton said in the video.

Likewise, both the Salt Lake and Unified police departments say coming across people with potential viruses or infectious diseases is something that happens almost daily.

“This isn’t necessarily something new that we’re experiencing. We’re prepared for people with communicable diseases and we take proper precautions already. It’s nothing new. We are being cautious, we are being careful and we’re monitoring the situation,” Wilking said.

“It’s something we’ve dealt with forever,” added Unified Police Sgt. Melody Gray. “Hepatitis is a big one, very contagious and can do a lot of damage. That’s something officers are constantly coming into contact with. These universal precautions are really no different than any other day. We’re trying to assist in slowing the spread.”

Gray said Unified’s officers have been given boxes of single-use, disposable gloves to wear on calls as well as extra hand sanitizer to be kept in patrol cars. Unified police will also try to handle nonviolent calls, such as vandalism and theft, by phone for now to limit personal interaction. However, officers will still respond to calls such as assault and robbery.

Wilking said Salt Lake City is also encouraging more online and telephone reporting of incidents.

Priscila Nielsen, an advanced emergency medical technician for the Unified Fire Authority, holds a COVID-19 suit at Station 126 in Midvale on Thursday, March 19, 2020.
Priscila Nielsen, an advanced emergency medical technician for the Unified Fire Authority, holds a COVID-19 suit at Station 126 in Midvale on Thursday, March 19, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

As of Tuesday, neither Salt Lake nor Unified police had reported coming in contact with someone with the coronavirus.

The Utah Highway Patrol is also taking precautions.

UHP Sgt. Nick Street said troopers can verify driver’s licenses and registrations with very little contact with drivers. Troopers can keep their distance by talking to drivers through the passenger side window, and most information can be checked electronically. He said if troopers feel they should limit their interaction with a driver, handing them a citation is all they really need to do.

Street stressed, however, that coronavirus won’t be a free pass for breaking the law.

Recently, a shuttle van transporting potential COVID-19 patients who had just gotten off a cruise ship and was heading back to the Uinta Basin was pulled over twice by troopers for speeding during the same trip, Street said. The cruise line passengers were wearing masks, but later tested negative for the virus, he said.

In this case, Street said the shuttle driver got off with a warning both times.

Local police and fire departments have also limited their interaction with the public by canceling all fire and police station tours and any scheduled public appearances for awareness campaigns, for now.

Most of the state’s jails and prisons have already suspended visitations and volunteer work. The Davis County Jail announced this week that it would also be suspending on-site visitation starting Wednesday.

The ban on visitors will also include parole hearings at the Utah State Prison.

“For now, board hearings will continue as scheduled. However, while restrictions remain in place, no visitors, including offender family members and friends, will be allowed to attend board hearings,” the Board of Pardons and Parole posted on its website.

However, an offender’s attorney will still be able to attend, as well as a representative for the victim and up two of the victim’s family members.