Sonoma County public safety agencies adjust to protect workers, inmates amid coronavirus outbreak
Public safety leaders in Sonoma County have stepped up precautions against the coronavirus, hoping to insulate law enforcement officers, firefighters and other first-responders from the pandemic’s spread so they can continue providing critical services during the prolonged emergency.
While large swathes of American life are increasingly being conducted over the phone or online to slow the spread of coronavirus, many public safety tasks cannot be done remotely. Officers, firefighters and medics must be physically present to respond to serious crimes, to train hoses on house fires and to administer first-aid care to patients.
In Santa Rosa, the fire and police departments are sealing themselves off from nonessential operations - canceling station tours, ride-alongs, training sessions and school visits - to make sure they will remain healthy enough to respond to emergency calls.
“If somebody needs help, we have to be there,” Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro said Friday.
Police officers will continue to be provided with personal protective equipment such as gloves, masks and goggles, and they will proactively sanitize police vehicles on a regular basis, Navarro said. Police officers will notify jail officials if they’re transporting a suspect with symptoms of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, and will do extra decontamination after “any specific contact” with a suspect who has cold-like symptoms.
Navarro encouraged residents to report crimes online to further minimize contact with officers. Police “may take an extra moment to ask a question before going into a house or maintain extra distance” due to the coronavirus, he said, but officers will still respond to emergency requests for help.
“We can adjust prioritization accordingly, but we’re always going to go to those 911 calls,” Navarro said. “We’re asking our officers to be smart.”
The Sonoma County Jail system, which houses about 1,100 inmates daily, announced on Monday a temporary suspension of nearly all inmate visitations at its two facilities to prevent the disease from spreading into the facility and among its guests, Sonoma County Assistant Sheriff Al Vernon said.
Lawyers will still be able to visit with clients, though other regular visitors, such as volunteers from peer support groups and educational service providers, will be barred from entering the facility. Family and friends of inmates will also be asked to postpone visitations.
“We’ can’t guarantee the 6-foot rule,” Vernon said of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation to avoid close contact with others. “Anybody coming in and out of our facilities are essential staff.”
Vernon announced the protocol change a day after county officials announced the first two cases of community spread of the virus, a tally that by Monday had grown to four people.
The potential spread of the virus to staff and inmates in the jail system was an immediate concern as the number of cases statewide began to rise, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said.
“We have a constant flow of people coming in and out of custody,” Essick said. “It’s really hard to protect a population when you run such a transitory type of business.”
Janitorial staff and inmate workers tasked with cleaning the facility have been told to take special care when wiping down surfaces like doorknobs and railings, where the disease is more likely to spread from one person to another.
Outside the jail, deputies on patrol are being asked to closely follow illness prevention measures already in place, such as wearing gloves when coming into physical contact with people and wiping down the back of patrol cars if they suspect a person they’ve detained is sick.
All staff have been asked to stay home if they think they’re ill.
“One of our paramount things is if we’re not healthy, we cannot help the public,” Essick said.
Wellpath, the jail’s medical and mental health provider, expected a shipment of coronavirus tests to arrive early this week, Vernon said. While he was not sure how many tests will be available at the Sonoma County Jail, the tests will provide speedier results if a potential case is suspected.
Medical staff at the facility have had access to influenza tests for about the past week, which they’ve used to rule out the potential of coronavirus in ill people entering the jail, Vernon said.
The jail has also expanded the screening process to include questions about inmates who have traveled to areas with large numbers of coronavirus cases. An earlier version of the question only asked about travel to Wuhan, China, where the virus was first detected.