“We cannot shelter in place”: How first responders are protecting themselves against COVID-19

by Caroline Bottger

While the rest of us try to work from home, first responders don’t have a choice. Since they work with the public and the majority of coronavirus cases are a result of close contact with others, these workers are in the hot zone. Here’s how they’re protecting themselves.

For police, gloves and masks are now standard issue — but there are already shortages. LAPD officers take temperature checks before each shift. In a major change to policing, departments are urging police to limit their interactions with the public. But as more officers fall ill, fewer officers and even non-police personnel have to pick up the slack. The NYPD reported that 15 percent of its force is out sick. As for testing, police can be only if they show symptoms. Sgt. Paul Kelly in San Jose pushed back against this: “We’re not special because we’re cops. We’re special because we need to get tested because we’re first responders.”

In hospitals, personal protective equipment is also thin on the ground. Reports paint an increasingly desperate picture of how medical staff are trying to protect themselves using whatever they can. One nurse in Washington State told ProPublica that all she had as protection was a simple surgical mask. Others report having to use garbage bags. Like police, nurses and doctors say that unless they are symptomatic, they are not tested, and must come to work. The federal government is providing hospitals with supplies, but healthcare workers in certain states say that they have only received a fraction so far.

For paramedics, this is also an incredibly busy time: 911 dispatchers in New York City report that on some days, they receive more calls than they did on Sept. 11, 2001. Fire departments are also facing staffing shortages, so reporting and response guidelines have been amended to limit exposure while on a call. To preserve numbers, New York City firefighters are no longer being sent on calls where an individual is displaying coronavirus symptoms. But these precautions could be hiding a ticking time bomb: according to union leaders, enlistment numbers for firefighters and EMS members in New York City are already very low, so any dent in the number of staff could become a problem, fast.

There are some glimmers of hope: testing sites specifically for first responders are opening up. Stores are offering deals and discounts to those on the front lines. The public is eager to show its support. But these measures do little to combat the stress of the unknown. “Everything changes from day to day,” said a New York City nurse. “A week ago we were instructed to take off our masks at work. Now we are being instructed to wear them at all times because so many of us are testing positive.” Assistant Chief David LeValley in Detroit echoed the stress: “We can train all day for certain kinds of threats out on the street that they can see. But when you’re dealing with something that you can’t see, it’s nerve-wracking.”

Caroline Bottger is a freelance writer who writes on issues of technology, privacy, and security. 
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