Wednesday, July 8, 2020
July 8, 2020

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Clark County emergency responders take steps to avoid COVID-19

Caution imperative; city firefighters had contact with infected people

By , Columbian Breaking News Reporter
Published:

Clark County emergency responders are taking steps to protect themselves and the public against COVID-19. They are wearing more protective gear, questioning patients and keeping their distance from people possibly sick from the spreading virus.

However, Vancouver Fire Department firefighters have come in contact with people who have tested positive for the virus. None of the firefighters have tested positive, according to Fire Chief Joe Molina.

Two Clark County Fire District 6 firefighters quarantined themselves about two weeks ago, for seven days, after they were exposed to the first known COVID-19 patient in the county. There have been no similar exposures since then, agency spokesman Dave Schmitke said.

The precautions begin as soon as anyone calls 911.

Dr. Lynn Wittwer, Clark County program director for emergency medical services, said dispatchers at Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency, or CRESA, use scripted questions for certain callers. If someone reports they are feeling unwell, those details trigger something called the emerging infectious disease questionnaire list, Wittwer said.

The questionnaire list was originally developed for Ebola. Now, it’s being used for any new virus, and most recently, the novel coronavirus, he said.

“The different questions that they’ll ask the person making the call generally start out with straightforward things like, ‘Are they breathing normally or are they conscious?’ Standard kinds of questions. But, if someone says they have a cough or a fever, that triggers the infectious diseases questions,” Wittwer said.

Question No. 1 on the list: “Has the person traveled in the past 21 days, and if so, where to?” That’s called a Centers for Disease Control question, which the federal agency deemed as the most important question.

If the caller answers no, question No. 2 is asked: “Has the person had contact with anyone who has traveled in the past 21 days or close contact with someone who’s had or thought to have had the coronavirus?”

The third and fourth questions are if the caller has a fever and if they have flu-like symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, persistent cough and other ailments.

If any of the questions are answered in the affirmative, the information is transmitted directly to the call notes of emergency responders on their way to help.

“The dispatchers require clear information from the reporting caller, and a lot of the time someone is calling because they’re really, really sick, and they’re panicked and don’t give us all the information we need right away,” Wittwer said, explaining the need for the extra questions.

Clark County Fire & Rescue Chief John Nohr said usually, multiple firefighters will enter a dwelling to check on a sick person. With the notes from the questionnaire on hand, he said, a single firefighter would approach a patient for an initial assessment.

His employees always wear gloves and goggles on sick calls. Since the beginning of the pandemic, they’ve also been donning masks and gowns.

Schmitke, with Fire District 6, similarly said his agency is limiting the number of people who will go into a room initially, and crews are wearing more protective gear, such as masks and thick gowns, among other equipment.

“If the person doesn’t have any (COVID-19) symptoms, then we’ll enter like usual,” Schmitke said.

Nohr said that one protocol change in the past week or so has been the implementation of a provision that allows firefighters to ask people to come outside and meet them. If the person is unable to do so, they will enter the home, he said.

Molina said Vancouver firefighters are wearing protective equipment designed to keep them safe from the virus.

“However, as the virus spreads in our region, we, like so many other emergency medical providers, are scrambling to keep up with our needs for (personal protective equipment),” Molina said, adding that he is concerned about a potential shortage in the county.

AMR Northwest, the ambulance service contracted by the city, said in an email that its responders are trained and equipped to handle infectious diseases.

Additional precautions

None of the fire departments have noted an uptick in calls related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have seen no significant impact to our calls. It’s also flu season right now. We’re probably seeing more calls related to that than anything,” Schmitke said.

The departments, including Clark County Fire District 3, have halted interactions with the community. New requests for the use of meeting rooms by organizations or members of the public are not being accepted. All nonemergency appearances at community meetings and public events are suspended. Ride-alongs are also suspended.

“Our responders are out running the risk of exposure on nearly every call, so we don’t want folks coming through as much as we usually do. It’s difficult for us, because we love to do those things,” Nohr said.

The Vancouver Police Department implemented several measures starting last week to adhere to CDC guidelines on social distancing. Officers are responding to all calls for service, although its announcement says some calls should be handled over the phone.

“Citizens are encouraged to use telephone reporting, rather than coming to our precincts to file reports,” the police department said.

Telephone reports can be made from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday by calling 360-487-7500.

In-person responses are guaranteed for calls where there are life-safety issues or if the call cannot be handled telephonically. All criminal investigations will continue, the police department said.

Vancouver police have stopped offering ride-alongs. Community rooms at police facilities are closed, and officer attendance at public events and meetings is canceled until social-distancing restrictions are lifted by the CDC.

“We are also planning for the possibility that our staffing may be impacted if our personnel become ill. We are developing plans to keep patrol functions as a top priority to maintain our ability to be responsive for emergency calls for service should this occur,” the police department said.

Department spokeswoman Kim Kapp said Thursday that the situation has not changed since last week, and no further measures have been put in place.

“Nothing has changed and our officers don’t look any different when responding to calls. They do have (protective equipment) in the event there is someone experiencing signs of illness,” Kapp said.

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office said it will continue to respond to all calls where there are life-safety issues, but for nonemergency requests, deputies may call prior to their arrival to “help them determine the level of service needed and/or whether they can help you over the phone.”

People wanting to speak with deputies are encouraged to call 311 or the sheriff’s office’s West Precinct during regular business hours at 360-397-6079.

Ride-alongs with deputies are canceled. Community rooms will be closed to the public, gatherings are postponed and people with nonessential business at its facilities have been asked to reschedule.

Plans are also being discussed should some of the deputies become ill.

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