How Orlando's first responders are protecting themselves from coronavirus

click to enlarge IMAGE VIA ORLANDO FIRE DEPARTMENT / TWITTER
Image via Orlando Fire Department / Twitter
First responders in Orlando, including firefighters, police and emergency service technicians, have added measures to protect themselves from coronavirus while also aiding the public.

COVID-19 was recognized as a pandemic on Wednesday, and health experts are in a dash to better understand the fatal disease. Emergency officials say the virus has been a focal point in the preparation of local first responders for months, in anticipation of new developments.

By early January, Orange County's emergency services system, coordinating with partner hospitals and emergency techs around Orlando, began looking at coronavirus precautions, said system director Dr. Christian Zuver. The county was implementing a virus screening protocol by late January.

New virus screenings begin with dispatch asking the 911 caller if anyone involved has flu-like symptoms, like a cough, fever and shortness of breath, and if there are any risk factors, like recent international travel. In the early goings, said Zuver, a dispatch risk question would be if anyone had recently been to China. But "as things rapidly change," that question grew to include other high-risk nations like Italy (the site of the outbreak), Iran and South Korea.

Should a 911 caller say that someone does have symptoms or has high-risk factors, dispatch will give first responders a code to indicate they need the appropriate equipment. Orange County's virus protocol equipment includes a respirator mask, eye goggles and face shield, gloves, shoe covers and a full-body gown.

"All fire units are equipped with isolation kits as part of their standard inventory," said Orlando Fire Department public information officer Ashley Papagni. "That contains gowns, face shields, eye protection and arm sleeves." She said the department is "monitoring and preparing" coronavirus screening, working closely with the Florida Department of Health.

The Orlando Police Department, said Heidi Rodriguez, who does media relations for the department, is coordinating protocol with Orange County's medical director office. Orlando Police's international airport division, she added, is taking precautions recommended by the Customs and Border Patrol, TSA, Homeland Security, GOAA Emergency Operations and the Center for Disease Control.

Local agencies with first responders have been trained in pandemic protocol before, like for the H1N1 virus and Ebola scares, and are regularly trained on being prepared to take the extra measures, said Zuver.

"That's half the battle," he said, noting the next link in protecting emergency services workers is shielding hospital workers who receive patients with flu-like symptoms.

At Orange County EMS partner hospitals, such patients are put into negative pressure rooms, said Zuver, and ambulances have rigorous decontamination processes that, for coronavirus, includes a fogger that covers every surface with disinfectant.

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