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Tampa Bay’s first-responders plan, prepare for coronavirus fears

Emergency personnel are learning how coronavirus affects people, who is at risk and who will need help.

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When someone calls Pinellas County’s 911 line and reports these symptoms — they’re feverish, coughing and short of breath — call-takers now know what to ask next:

Has the caller recently traveled to China, Iran, Italy, Japan or South Korea? Have they spent time with anyone who traveled there? Did they come into close contact with anyone who was sick in those countries?

If they hear "yes” to enough questions then the call-takers will hit the caps lock button and start typing this message:


That scenario hasn’t unfolded yet in the Tampa Bay area, but health officials are getting ready in case it does. Local first-responders like 911 operators, paramedics, public health officials and healthcare workers are learning how to work the frontlines of the coronavirus outbreak.

Related: ‘Unacceptable:’ Woman on Tampa flight with coronavirus patient blasts Florida officials

In Florida, two of the four positive cases of coronavirus — technically known as COVID-19 — are in Hillsborough County, a woman in her 20s who visited Italy and her traveling companion. Both are now in isolation in the county. The other two patients are a Manatee County man in his 60s and a Santa Rosa County man in his 70s.

Dr. Angus Jameson, the medical director for Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services, said residents shouldn’t be alarmed if they see first-responders wearing gloves, gowns and masks (that’s what PPE stands for: personal protective equipment). They’re just taking the proper precautions.

"Don’t be surprised,” he said. “We’re following all recommendations.”

Related: Coronavirus in Florida: The latest and all your questions answered

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Gloves and masks, though, aren’t as important as making sure everyone has the right information for dealing with coronavirus.

In Hillsborough County, health officials and the county’s emergency management staff formed a “Joint Information Center” to ensure that all first-responder agencies, hospitals, nursing homes and other government entities have the most up-to-date and accurate information, said Emergency Management Director Timothy Dudley Jr.

The county’s Emergency Operations Center has begun sharing information with residents who signed up for “HCFL Alert,” the county’s text message-based emergency alert system. The Hillsborough County School District will also start broadcasting informational videos to students about the risks of the disease and how to prevent infection through good hygiene — basically by thoroughly washing their hands.

It’s all a part of the state Department of Health’s procedures for government operations during a “pandemic” and the county’s own emergency plan, Dudley said.

For Dr. Douglas Holt, executive director of the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, a top priority was ensuring all 911 emergency operators and first-responders are trained in how to report calls and requests for help from those who fear they may have contracted coronavirus.

Related: Florida Gov. DeSantis asks Legislature for $25 million in coronavirus fight
An AeroClave machine disperses a disinfectant in a Hillsborough County Fire Rescue ambulance during a demonstration at the East Lake Fire Station No. 32 on Friday. The machine and disinfectant will be used by the agency if ambulances are used to transport patients who test positive for the coronavirus.
An AeroClave machine disperses a disinfectant in a Hillsborough County Fire Rescue ambulance during a demonstration at the East Lake Fire Station No. 32 on Friday. The machine and disinfectant will be used by the agency if ambulances are used to transport patients who test positive for the coronavirus. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]

By Friday, all of Hillsborough’s emergency operators had been trained by the health department on what to do if they receive a call about the virus, he said.

Coronavirus doesn’t always require immediate hospitalization. Instead, doctors need to identify potential patients and test them. If they test positive, then they need to be isolated and monitored in case their symptoms worsen.

What’s most important is that the infected don’t spread the disease to those who are particularly vulnerable, such as the sick and elderly.

So 911 call-takers must be able to relay the proper instructions. Officials don’t want anyone who may be infected to visit hospitals, doctors’ offices or fire stations seeking help without calling first to contain any unnecessary spread of the disease.

Related: The struggle to find information on coronavirus is even harder in Spanish

Hillsborough officials have taken steps to contain the outbreak from its two patients. Health officials identified the patient’s traveling companion and have now tested 11 of the woman’s “close contacts.” Five of those tests came back negative, while four others are pending, Holt said.

The two infected patients remained in stable condition on Friday, and six of their closest contacts have been quarantined so they can be monitored for any signs of the illness.

Meanwhile, Holt’s staff is currently monitoring seven individuals in “self isolation" who recently visited China.

“Right now we’re doing all we can to stamp it out," Holt said, "but we are prepared to manage it.”

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But if patients do need emergency medical treatment, then first-responders are getting ready for that scenario, too.

What happened in Kirkland, Wash., is an example of why they need to worry. The city said Thursday that 32 first-responders — firefighters and police officers — are in quarantine after being exposed to infected patients at a nursing home. Twelve of them have flu-like symptoms.

St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Lt. Steve Lawrence said his agency’s firefighters and paramedics have been responding to calls for the “common cold and common flu.” But to minimize exposure to anyone who may actually have coronavirus, those people are being asked to stay at home and call their physicians or the health department.

In Pinellas, all emergency medical personnel were quickly retrained in donning different levels of personal protective gear, said director of emergency medical services and fire administration Craig Hare. The county has also been stockpiling protective equipment, and if supplies dwindle, the county can access the federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile of reserve gear.

Related: HEALTH Florida health workers face coronavirus up close. Will they get it?

Cleveland has a specially equipped ambulance that many agencies across the country now wish they had: It has a sealed cab to keep the drivers from coming into contact with the patient and emergency crew, according to WKYC-TV.

Jameson said Pinellas is considering designating certain ambulances to be used to transport anyone they suspect of having coronavirus. The county would try to keep the driver compartment sealed from the patient-treating area of units, he added.

But officials also need to be able to sanitize their emergency vehicles. Hillsborough Fire Rescue paramedics recently brought back a special cleaning device to disinfect their ambulances: the “AeroClave.”

The department bought the powerful, large-scale decontamination devices about five years ago through a $13,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hillsborough Fire Rescue Quality Management Section Chief Jeremy Fischler likened the “AeroClave” to a bug bomb used to fumigate a home.

The small, yellow box, emits a powerful, virus-killing fog that can completely disinfect an ambulance, hospital room or home in about 30 minutes, Fischler said.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

Q&A: The latest and all your questions answered.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Household cleaners can kill the virus on most surfaces, including your phone screen.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

WORKPLACE RISK: A list of five things employers could be doing to help curb the spread of the disease.

READER BEWARE: Look out for bad information as false claims are spreading online.

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