For a little more than a week, New Mexicans have been urged to adhere to social distancing practices and limiting face-to-face interactions to reduce exposure to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
Reports of positive tests for COVID-19 in New Mexico have prompted people to shun large gatherings, restaurants to temporarily shutter and many people to work from home when they can.
Unlike many professions though, police and first responders still have to go to the office.
“Working from home is not an option for us, we have to be ready to go no matter the situation around us and whatever is going on in the communities,” said Devin Graham, fire chief with the Roswell Fire Department.
Roswell police officers are thrust into a similar situation, where maintaining a presence in the community is often required.
“We can’t just shut down the building and everyone go home,” said Phil Smith, chief of the Roswell Police Department.
One of the biggest challenges presented by COVID-19, Smith says, is a person might not exhibit symptoms for as many as 14 days after they have been exposed. That means officers and any member of the public might unknowingly end up transmitting it to someone else.
“So that is the real difficulty,” he said.
No cases of positive test results for COVID-19 have yet been reported in Chaves County, but first responders and police are taking measures to minimize risk of exposure to themselves or the public.
One of those precautions is to make sure officers are informed.
Smith said officers are made aware of the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and New Mexico Department of Health through a department-wide email and at their morning briefings.
Police officers are being told not to enter a house, and to remain in open spaces as they can to prevent possible exposure to the virus. They are also working with dispatchers to screen calls.
Officers will still go to the scene of calls where there is an immediate danger pertaining to an individual’s health or safety or when a crime is in progress.
A press release issued by the city Friday said that for less urgent calls, a dispatcher will ask the caller to leave their name and phone number so an officer can contact them and complete reports or interviews by phone.
Smith said people can also come down to the station if they wish to speak with an officer in person.
Fire departments must also cope with the risks posed by COVID-19.
Graham said his department and Superior Ambulance, which the department works with to provide emergency medical care and ambulance services, are using more personal protective equipment, or PPEs.
Firefighters and first responders typically use gloves when responding to a medical emergency. With the outbreak of COVID-19 though, the possible equipment they are outfitted with also now includes safety glasses, N95 face masks for respiratory protection and protective gowns.
When a person calls 911 to report a medical emergency or fire, Graham said they are asked a series of questions to determine if the person is at risk for having COVID-19, such as if they have recently traveled outside the United States or to places where there is a high concentration of COVID-19 cases.
That screening process helps determine whether what is being dealt with is coronavirus, Graham said.
If it is determined the risk of COVID-19 exposure is high, first responders and firefighters will don the masks, protective gowns and eyewear.
The precautions taken by fire departments though is not just in larger cities — small towns and rural departments must also adapt.
Justin Powell, chief of Dexter Fire and EMS, said his department has implemented protocols on how to respond in the event of a call involving someone who has COVID-19.
“We in Dexter and in most departments are dedicating an ambulance strictly for those types of calls,” he said.
Using one ambulance for possible COVID-19 calls ensures that other units are not contaminated.
Powell said his department has also been meeting with area hospitals about their needs and protocols when it comes to the transfer of patients from ambulances to medical facilities.
“So we are trying to be as proactive as we can,” he said.
Firefighters and paramedics routinely engage in discussion about different issues and scenarios.
What to do when a first responder gets exposed to COVID-19 and has to be quarantined, or how the department operates with minimal staff, are all issues that the department mulls, Powell said.
Powell said regardless of the circumstances, first responders will do what they have to do, even with the risks presented by a health emergency — to provide care to patients.
To keep up with local coverage of the coronavirus, go to rdrnews.com/category/news/covid-19-situation/.
Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext, 301, or email@example.com.