Coronavirus: Clark, Champaign first responders adapting, preparing for jump in cases

Springfield firefighter Bryon Betsinger puts on his protective equipment Wednesday before a run. BILL LACKEY/STAFF
Springfield firefighter Bryon Betsinger puts on his protective equipment Wednesday before a run. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

First responders in both Clark and Champaign counties say they are adapting to the COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, outbreak while continuing on with daily operations and preparing for a possible surge in cases.

Area law enforcement and local fire departments have tweaked their operations and increased the amount of personal protection equipment first responders are using. The goal is to protect personnel as they respond to calls in their communities. That includes limiting exposure and taking added precautions in order to help prevent the virus from spreading.

In accordance with those procedures, dispatchers in both counties have been instructed to ask screening questions. The purpose is to find out if anyone at a scene is displaying symptoms associated with coronavirus before sending out a first responder. That information is being used as departments decide what actions to take while trying to conserve personal protection equipment as it is unclear how long the pandemic will last.

“It gets us better prepared so we do not have any cross contamination,” said Bethel Twp. Fire Chief Jacob King.

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Planning ahead

In Springfield, firefighters have been conducting self screenings and fire stations have been closed off to the public, according to Brian Miller, the chief for the Springfield Fire/Rescue Division. He said they have received guidance from agencies such as the Clark County Combined Health District and the Greater Miami Valley EMS Council in an effort to seek out best practices and establish contingency plans regarding the coronavirus pandemic.

He added that most of that guidance is also coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Miller said that is important as his department juggles manpower and determines what and how many items of personal protection equipment is needed. That includes how to move forward in case a number of personnel become sick.

It also includes rationing certain supplies, following guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he added. Local first responders anticipate that orders of personal protection equipment will continue to become harder to get depending on how long the pandemic lasts. That is also dependent on the increase of cases both in the state and across the country.

Representatives of the Clark County Emergency Management Agency said they currently have a low amount of supplies at their disposal, including latex gloves, surgical masks, N95 respirators and gowns.

The county has already received a shipment of supplies from a national stockpile, which is allocated on the county level by state officials, said Emma Smales, a spokesperson for the Clark County Combined Health District.

She said they are working with the local EMA in distributing those supplies based on where they are the most needed. That can include to hospitals or local emergency medical services providers.

In addition, the Clark County EMA is seeking donations for those supplies from area businesses and organizations as well as from residents. For more information, or to make a donation, residents can email slittler@clarkcountyohio.gov.

Miller said at this point, Springfield Fire is relying on private vendors for personal protection equipment and some orders for supplies have been backlogged. He said a majority of the division’s squad calls are EMS related and Springfield firefighters are being asked to reuse respirators and other equipment, if able and depending on the nature of the call to which they are responding.

“What we have learned is a new term called burn rate, how fast you’re going through your personal protection equipment,” Miller said, noting that they are still working to establish what that rate is.

He added that though they have enough supplies now, it is unclear how the situation will look if the pandemic continues to last for several months.

The amount of personal protection equipment used by individual first responders also depends on the nature of the call they are responding to and on department policy. If someone at a scene shows flu-like symptoms or other symptoms associated with coronavirus, such as shortness in breath, the amount of personal protection equipment worn by first responders will be increased.

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Limiting exposure

In addition, first responders, if able, have been instructed to practice social distancing when responding to calls. That includes talking to residents at a distance or meeting them outside depending on the nature of the call.

King said his department has also implemented several protocols, such as having firefighters meet residents at their doors, if possible, to get further information regarding a patient before entering. That also allows firefighters to judge if they need to increase their level of personal protection equipment.

“The biggest piece is balancing the safety of our first responders with efficient and quick emergency medical care for the community,” he added.

Miller said the likelihood that his firefighters have been exposed to the coronavirus remains low at this point. However, the division has had a total of nine employees go into quarantine due to possible exposure to residents who were exhibiting some of the symptoms associated with the virus.

Miller said those residents have since been tested and it was found that they did not test positive for the coronavirus. He said firefighters who were quarantined have since returned to work.

King said that none of his firefighters have been placed on quarantine as of Thursday afternoon.

So far, Clark County has reported six confirmed cases of the coronavirus with cases in Springfield, Bethel Twp., German Twp. and New Carlisle. The cases include a veteran in his 70s — the county’s first confirmed case — who was part of the cluster outbreak at the Koester Pavilion care facility in Troy reported March 18. The second case is a woman in her 60s who is a known contact of the first case. The four other cases include a male in his 30s, who was previously hospitalized, a woman in her 70s, a woman in her 60s and a man in his 70s whom are hospitalized. The new cases are unrelated to the previous cases or to each other, according to the Clark County Combined Health District.

“Unfortunately, additional cases of COVID-19 in Clark County are inevitable,” Clark County Combined Health District Commissioner Charles Patterson, said. “We are urging residents to practice social distancing and follow the governor’s ‘Stay at Home’ order to prevent the spread of this dangerous virus.”

King said in Bethel Twp., his department has been monitoring the pandemic as well as observing the impact it has had on other countries since the beginning of the year. He said though, in the township, while their daily operations have not changed a lot, they have implemented more training to better prepare firefighters and help them recognize signs associated with the virus.

He said his department has already established plans on how to better direct resources in order to react to an increase in county cases.

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Eliminating any single point of failure

In Champaign County, there have been two confirmed cases of the coronavirus. Health officials believe those cases are unrelated to each other.

One positive case is a female in her 50s, a statement from the Champaign Health District said, and she is currently hospitalized. The other is a female in her early 30s who has not traveled.

Urbana Fire Chief Dean Ortlieb said right now, his department is focused on reducing potential exposure to his personnel while taking precautions that reduce the risk of multiple firefighters being sick at the same time.

“Everything that we are working on is centered around eliminating any single point of failure,” he said.

That includes, on certain calls, having one first responder initiate contact with potential patients while wearing increased personal protection equipment. In addition, it means having equipment available if the situation calls for it.

“We know that we have enough resources for our current load. We don’t know how big this is going to get,” Ortlieb said. He said that the Champaign County EMA has already received a shipment of supplies from a national stockpile.

He added that his department has been using vendors and have been placing small orders.

Ortlieb said they currently have one fire station, but are working on plans to spread out personnel in order to better prevent the virus from spreading. Though no personnel have been quarantined at this point, he said he wants to make sure they will not be in a situation where an entire shift would have to be quarantined at one time.

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Freeing up resources

Some departments told the News-Sun they are also working with dispatchers to determine what calls are considered urgent and require personnel. Certain situations may not require in-person contact with a first responder and can be handled by a simple phone call or through virtual means.

That could include types of thefts or other situations that do not require an on scene visit, said Jeff Meyer, chief deputy with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. The purpose of that is to allow local agencies to free up resources as they are planning ahead for an uptick in coronavirus cases, he added.

In addition, Clark County deputies who work in specialized units with the office, such as resource officers or detectives, have either been assigned to patrol duties or to the county jail. Meyer said they have 20 of those type of deputies with half assigned to day shift while the others work an evening shift.

Meyer said those deputies are being assigned based on where they are needed most each day. He said they began implementing that policy last week. It is expected to stay that way as long as the pandemic lasts. However, when normal operations resume, those deputies will be kept in their extended roles for several days or even a week depending on the situation.

So far, all deputies have been provided with gloves and are scheduled to be fitted for N95 masks early next week, Meyer said, noting that they have a total of 130 sworn deputies.

In addition to that, the sheriff’s office also has access to surgical masks as well as gowns, in case deputies are in contact with someone displaying symptoms associated with the virus. So far, Meyer said they have enough supplies, but are running low on hand sanitizer.

As of Thursday afternoon, two deputies have been quarantined and one has returned to work after testing negative for the virus.

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In Springfield, all personnel with the police division have been issued respirator masks, eye protection, gloves and other products such as sanitizing gel and disinfecting wipes, according to chief Lee Graf.

“We are not experiencing shortages at the moment, but we have a healthy concern that if this response period is prolonged we may face shortages,” he said. “We are taking steps to maintain our supply lines to ensure that we have what we need to keep our workforce as safe as possible.”

In addition, officers are required to wear their personal protection equipment if they feel they may be dealing with someone experiencing flu-like symptoms. The division is also asking residents, if able, to step outside of their homes to speak with officers.

For non emergency situations, it is recommend that residents utilize other resources such as calling 211, checking with their local health departments, including the hotline 1-833- 427-5634, as well as talking with their physicians. Residents should check these sources for information regarding the coronavirus and on changing state guidelines designed to slowdown the spread of the virus.