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Sonoma County public safety agencies adjust to protect workers, inmates amid coronavirus outbreak

How To Reduce Your Risk

Local health officials urge practicing good hygiene to reduce the risk of becoming infected with a respiratory virus, such as the flu or coronavirus. This includes:

• Washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds

• Avoid touching your eyes and face

• Cough or sneeze into your sleeved elbow

• Stay home when ill

• Get a flu shot, and it's not too late this season

Source: Sonoma County Department of Health Services

For more information, go to sonomacounty.ca.gov/Health/Information-About-Coronavirus.

Questions or concerns can be directed to the county's 24-hour information hotline at 211 or 800-325-9604. You can also text "COVID19" to 211211 for coronavirus information.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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.

How To Reduce Your Risk

Local health officials urge practicing good hygiene to reduce the risk of becoming infected with a respiratory virus, such as the flu or coronavirus. This includes:

• Washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds

• Avoid touching your eyes and face

• Cough or sneeze into your sleeved elbow

• Stay home when ill

• Get a flu shot, and it's not too late this season

Source: Sonoma County Department of Health Services

For more information, go to sonomacounty.ca.gov/Health/Information-About-Coronavirus.

Questions or concerns can be directed to the county's 24-hour information hotline at 211 or 800-325-9604. You can also text "COVID19" to 211211 for coronavirus information.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

At Redcom, Sonoma County’s fire and emergency medical dispatch center, the agency has expanded its script to detect when callers seeking medical attention may be at risk of having the virus. Dispatchers ask callers if they have had a cough or respiratory issues, or traveled in the last 14 days, among other questions, said KT McNulty, the center’s executive director.

If a dispatcher suspects the caller’s symptoms match those of the coronavirus, they immediately notify first responders, prompting them to change into protective gear that includes goggles, gloves and masks.

“It’s just a little bit more time that they’re spending with the 911 caller,” McNulty said.

The Santa Rosa Fire Department will prioritize emergency response calls during the COVID-19 outbreak, much like it does during “red flag” conditions of hot, dry, windy weather that causes fires to spread rapidly, said Fire Chief Tony Gossner.

“This is a pandemic that is going to affect the nation differently,” Gossner said. “Will there be diminished service? I can’t tell you that, but we will react to that however we need to, to ensure that we can provide the best service going forward.”

The fire department will postpone inspections for the next two to three weeks, Gossner said. Inspectors will still assess newly rebuilt homes in Coffey Park and Fountaingrove, but they’ll first ask homebuilders whether they’re feeling sick or have been out of the country before scheduling site visits, Gossner said.

“We are staying away from all of the big crowds,” Gossner said. “My goal is to keep everyone as healthy as possible.”

The Sheriff’s Office has started assessing the potential impact of a more widespread outbreak, one that could mean a large portion of the agency’s sworn staff are stuck at home as they recover from the illness. Mutual aid among agencies is a typical part of the response to traditional emergencies, but that might not be an option if neighboring public safety agencies are also understaffed due to sickness or quarantines.

“Because this is not a highly localized event, we may not have people to come to our rescue,” Essick said. “We may be on our own.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com and Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com.

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