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Metro Vancouver first responders taking precautions amid COVID-19 outbreak

Last Updated Mar 10, 2020 at 10:24 am PDT

FILE (Courtesy Facebook/TransitPoliceBC)

First responders in B.C. are taking precautionary steps as they deal with the public amid the COVID-19 outbreak

Police departments are asking officers to stay home if they're felling unwell, and say they have back up plans in place

The first death linked to the virus in Canada was reported at a North Vancouver care home

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – They are usually the first ones on the scene of any emergency, putting themselves at risk to help others, but they’re also human.

As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise around the world and here in B.C., first responders are taking some steps to be extra careful as they deal with the general public on a day-to-day basis.

The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) has just more than 1,300 active members and Sergeant Aaron Roed says for now, it’s business as usual. However, officers, who already wear gloves when needed, are being reminded to wash their hands a lot and to stay home if they don’t feel well. Officers are also being encouraged to self-isolate if they have symptoms.

“Vancouver Police does have options,” he tells NEWS 1130. “We do have lists available for officers who are willing to work if other officers aren’t able to make into work. But the city remains safe and people should feel Vancouver is a safe place to be.”

In addition to gloves, Roed adds officers are also given ample amounts of hand sanitizer. “We are very aware of what is going on around the world as well as locally and we will be taking any precautions to stay safe and healthy. We’re not doing anything additional at this time other than being provided with daily updates from the government and doing what we can to remain healthy.”

TransLink has already said things like handrails and train cars are being cleaned daily as officers increase their efforts to keep members safe.

Transit Police Sergeant Clint Hampton says operations are status quo, but sanitizing towelettes and gloves are available to patrol members.

“We’ve also provided hand sanitizer to any workstations that are our officers are going to be at and we’re recommending officers follow the general rule, so washing your hands consistently, avoid touching your face and report to your supervisor if they have any contact with anyone who’s potentially infected,” he explains. “And if somebody is feeling ill, we’re asking them to stay home.”

Those workstations include “staff only” areas at the majority of all SkyTrain stations, including at large hubs like Lougheed, Surrey Central and New Westminster stations.

Hampton admits they’re considering plans to be put in place in case a large number of officers are forced to stay home. “At this point in time, that’s not a concern because we do have enough officers and it’s not something that’s affected us up until now but that would be that as we move forward and things progress, we’ll have to address and plan for.”

Transit officers are not being issued masks but depending on the progression of the virus, he explains that could change. “Obviously it’s very fluid.”

Hand sanitizers

In Coquitlam, RCMP say they’ve installed more hand sanitizing stations.

Corporal Michael McLaughlin says they’re hyper aware, but officers are used to facing unsanitary situations.

“The truth is frontline police officers are always very cautious about communicable diseases. It’s something we deal with every day. Many of our clients are at high-risk for diseases or viruses. We also go into a lot environments that are less than clean, so we’re often exposed to bodily fluids, other hazards, that sort of thing. It’s part of our training to be aware of risks around something like an outbreak of disease or virus or anything like that. We do carry nitrile gloves and hand sanitizer as a minimum in our duty bags.”

When taking a call at a residence, McLaughlin says the virus is on officers’ minds, among other things. “Whenever we’re going to any call, we have to keep a number of factors in the back of our minds and one of them is always the potential of sickness or disease. Going into a call we would watch out for any signs of perhaps a potential outbreak, in this case and if there was we would call our health partners right away and take precautions.”

McLaughlin was asked if the onus is on people to tell them someone may be sick when calling for help.

“There are often situations where we go to a call for one thing and there are other things that happen. Recently, we had a call where we were brought in for a police matter and we found some people who were very upset at somebody who’d recently come back from Asia and was sick with something. Those people were overreacting and drawing conclusions about that person possibly having a COVID-19 type sickness. So, that’s one of the things we want to caution people is don’t overreact.”

Heightened risk for paramedics

As for paramedics, they say they have exposure control plans in place but they also feel they have a heightened risk of contracting something because they’re dealing with patients first, and sometimes in their home.

Troy Clifford, president of Ambulance Paramedics of BC and Emergency Dispatchers of BC, says members are being more diligent and are wearing masks and specialized glasses in addition to gloves when taking high-risk calls.

“We do have some things we’re doing differently when it comes to dispatch protocol. There are key questions they’re asking, from what I understand, so they’re flagging calls as ‘potentials.'” That means if someone is calling 911 for help and claims to have some of the symptoms linked to the virus then crews can take those extra steps.

He explains their two priorities are their staff and patients and their job is to keep everyone as healthy as possible. “First is paramedic safety because you can’t help people if you’re not safe and then our patients we’re looking after.”

Clifford says on a daily basis he’s hearing from members who are worried about being exposed to COVID-19. “It’s the busiest thing I’ve been dealing with in the last couple of weeks. I’m hearing the concerns, the apprehensions. It’s a reassurance and education for not only us but for the public about what exactly it is we’re doing and not getting caught up in the sensationalized of it, let’s be practical and understand what we’re dealing with and what are the proper procedures.”

He says they’re working with their employer should the outbreak become a full blown epidemic. “There are enough paramedics to go around. I would say we are prepared if it escalated but for the short-term but if we reached other levels, we would really have to assess what the priorities are and that would be the organization working with the health authorities, the unions, provincial health ministry and the government, obviously, and we would escalate appropriately.”

Existing practices

Vancouver Fire says it’s also prepared for the outbreak.

“Our staff routinely provide pre-hospital care to patients who may be carrying infectious diseases such as hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and influenza, and we have rigorous procedures and personal protective equipment to prevent transmission. Existing practices will protect our staff from potential COVID19 infections while treating patients, although additional questions have been added to our patient assessment model to help guide further treatment. Lastly, staff have been reminded that the most effective barrier to transmission is frequent hand-washing and hygienic worksite habits,” says VFRS Captain Jonathan Gormick.

The first death linked to the virus in Canada has been reported at a North Vancouver care home.