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Coronavirus in California: Yes, a few people are calling 911 to report coughing neighbors
By Colin Atagi, Christopher Damien and Marie McCain, Palm Springs Desert Sun, March 16, 2020:
As the number of those with the coronavirus grows locally some Coachella Valley police departments, such as the Cathedral City Police Department, say dispatchers have started fielding 911 reports from concerned callers convinced a neighbor’s overly loud sneeze or hacking cough is proof the person has the virus.
As the number of those with the coronavirus grows locally some Coachella Valley police departments, such as the Cathedral City Police Department, say dispatchers have started fielding 911 reports from concerned callers convinced a neighbor’s overly loud sneeze or hacking cough is proof the person has the virus. (Photo: Marilyn Chung / The Desert Sun)
Neighbors calling 911 to report hearing loud coughing next door? It’s happening.
As the number of those with the coronavirus grows locally — Riverside County announced its 15th case on Monday and San Bernardino County confirmed its first case on Sunday — some Coachella Valley police departments say they’ve started fielding 911 reports from concerned callers convinced a neighbor’s overly loud sneeze or hacking cough is proof the person has the virus.
Palm Springs police estimate dispatchers had about five of these calls last week, Sgt. Mike Casavan said.
Cathedral City police Cmdr. Paul Herrera said dispatchers with his department, who also handle 911 calls from the neighboring city of Desert Hot Springs, fielded similar calls.
In many cases, the calls are forwarded to the fire department where paramedics are also dispatched to directly provide any needed medical attention before transporting the person to an area hospital.
That it takes a lab test to determine whether a person is actually positive for the virus doesn’t matter. The concern is real and each call, no matter how infrequent, is a request for help that law enforcement personnel must take seriously and handle professionally.
Authorities say they can’t ignore such calls or discount them as paranoia, hypochondria or fakery. They must respond even when every other public entity adopts “social distancing” in order to reduce possible coronavirus transmission.
Taking precautions and controlling transmission
California Peace Officers Association President Neil Gallucci, who is also chief of the Carlsbad (Calif.) Police Department, said he hopes to head off worst-case scenarios, such as a first-responder becoming infected by a patient and then spreading the coronavirus to other first-responders..
“If that happens enough, we worry about calls for service,” Gallucci said. ”We’re prepared to deal with issues that come up, but it’s a concern chiefs worry about.”
He said it is an unlikely occurrence, though, as police officers have historically been trained to maintain sanitary conditions. The outbreak has simply made them more vigilant, he said.
Locally, even before the first Coachella Valley coronavirus case was diagnosed, emergency personnel say they anticipated there would be some level of fear and heightened concern among the general public.
Cathedral City dispatchers were instructed to ask callers if they or the person they were calling about had recently returned from a trip abroad, where coronavirus outbreaks were first reported.
Three-packs of N95 respiratory masks are set out on a display near disinfectant, sanitizer, toilet paper and other cleaning products Friday, March 13, 2020.
Three-packs of N95 respiratory masks are set out on a display near disinfectant, sanitizer, toilet paper and other cleaning products Friday, March 13, 2020. (Photo: Brian Wells/Times Herald)
But, as the pandemic’s spread continued the questions were changed, Herrera said. They now ask if the person has had any contact with someone who has tested positive.
Police must protect themselves, too
Ultimately, valley police say each call is treated like any other medical emergency, although, officers are now following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to protect not only the public, but themselves from any possible transmission of the illness.
And they’re having to figure out how to continue to serve and protect when it’s becoming increasingly clear that in order to protect others and themselves they have to reduce actual face-to-face interactions.
“It’s necessary,” Casavan said. “It’s not overwhelming, but we’re taking precautions.”
Palm Springs police officers have added hand sanitizer, gloves and medical face masks to the regular complement of equipment they carry every day. They also carry extra masks and gloves for anyone they might encounter who is exhibiting flu-like symptoms.
Casavan said the Palm Springs police station is cleaned daily and sanitizing wipes are now available throughout the building.
“Safety of officers is priority, they’ve been given a number of updates, we’re following CDC guidelines,” Herrera said, adding that Cathedral City police officers now carry infection control kits.
N95 face masks meant to keep out small particles that can cause lung irritation. Experts recommend that those who need to be outside during the smoke and haze of the wildfires in northern California wear them to protect their breathing.
N95 face masks meant to keep out small particles that can cause lung irritation. Experts recommend that those who need to be outside during the smoke and haze of the wildfires in northern California wear them to protect their breathing. (Photo: Elizabeth Weise)
“These kits contain sanitary towels, N95 flat-fold masks, latex gloves, safety glasses, biohazard bags — basic infectious control items,” he said. “We use the bags to pick up everything from an incident site, everything that comes after contact. We’re not leaving it.
Carol Leveroni, CPOA executive director, said law enforcement personnel across the state are so concerned about controlling the spread of the virus that some agencies have gone as far as issuing travel bans to staff.
In the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department where at least one employee has been under self-quarantine since March 6, sheriff’s deputies have been advised to take precautions at their own discretion, which include carrying hand sanitizer and wearing gloves during arrests, Deputy Robyn Flores, a department spokeswoman, said.
Sheriff Chad Bianco has declined to say what the self-quarantined employee does within the department or where she is stationed, but he did say.the woman is doing well.
“I wouldn’t say (the department is) panicking, but we are preparing (for coronavirus),” he told local leaders during a Coachella Valley Association of Governments meeting on March 9. He added the employee opted to isolate herself after returning from a week’s vacation in Italy, where — as of Monday — more than 1,440 people have been tested positive for the coronavirus.
“If we’re getting calls form people who report they have symptoms, we’ll automatically forward them to the fire department for medical aid,” Riverside County sheriff’s Sgt. Albert Martinez said, adding that deputy safety is a concern.
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