Washington County law enforcement and first responders have a challenging job, but now they must take more precautions to protect themselves from coronavirus while on duty.
Washington County Sheriff Mike Robinson and Blair Police Capt. Aaron Barrow said deputies and officers have been issued personal protection equipment, including gloves and masks.
Robinson said his deputies are required to wear gloves and potentially masks on calls for service. Both the sheriff's office and the police department have issued directives to try to reduce the possibility of physical contact or casual transmission.
“The main reason for this is we want to make sure that we don't run out of police officers. That is the main thing,” Barrow said. “Obviously, we care about everybody's health and the health of their family, but the bottom line is that we still have to be able to provide service and respond to calls.”
Washington County and the City of Blair have restricted access to county and city offices, including the sheriff's office, courthouse and the Blair police station lobby. The offices remain open via phone.
Both agencies are also starting to take more reports over the phone rather than in person.
“We would just ask the public's patience with us as we go through this,” Barrow said. “We know it's going to be inconvenient at times and may seem impersonal, but it's going to be temporary.”
Law enforcement will still respond to major calls for service, Barrow and Robinson said.
Visitation to the Washington County Jail has also been suspended until further notice.
“We have to keep that jail open so we need to cut down on the chance of exposure,” Robinson said. “That includes deputies or police officers just going back to visit. That's done, we can't do it. The same thing with the 911 center.”
Deputies and officers will not be allowed into the 911 center to pick up paperwork.
The county is also taking precautions with prisoners who are brought to the jail.
“Any fresh arrest that comes in now, we're not allowing them in the building until we do some medical screening questions and check their temperature,” Robinson said.
Blair police officers often respond to rescue calls. However, Barrow said that is likely to be reduced, especially if a patient is complaining of flu-like symptoms.
“We probably aren't going to go into a home like that and leave that to the medical professionals,” he said. “We don't like not helping, but like I said the bottom line is that we have to be available for emergency calls.”
Blair Fire Chief Joe Leonard said members of the Blair Volunteer Fire Department are also taking precautions on rescue calls.
“If we get a call, we're going in with just one individual to assess the situation,” he said. “After we assess it, we'll go in with the rest of the crew.”
Leonard said the department is following guidelines from the Three Rivers Public Health Department and the Blair Rescue medical director. If the department gets a call for a potential patient, rescue members have been asked to evaluate the patient in their home.
“We don't want people to be discouraged because if its not a medical emergency, if they don't have any difficulty breathing or broken bones or anything like that but they've got some of the signs and symptoms, (the medical director) doesn't want us to transport,” Leonard said.
Instead, the patient would be asked to call their healthcare provider. However, if the patient is in need of transport, first responders would call the hospital and likely be diverted to an Omaha hospital.