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Rapid Response: Quarantine of public safety personnel takes COVID-19 impact to new level

Public safety leaders need to discuss risk-benefit of a quarantine and continuity of operations in light of decision to quarantine personnel potentially exposed to coronavirus


Twenty-five firefighters and two police officers are believed to have possibly come in contact with the coronavirus at Life Care Center of Kirkland, a nursing and rehab facility, where dozens of residents and staff are reporting symptoms.

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

What happened: The City of Kirkland (Washington) announced on Saturday that 25 firefighters and two police officers were placed under quarantine “out of an abundance of caution” due to a COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak at a care facility. According to the press release, the firefighters of the Seattle-area community are either under home quarantine or at a Kirkland fire station for quarantine. Each responder is believed to have possibly come in contact with the coronavirus at Life Care Center of Kirkland, a nursing and rehab facility where dozens of residents and staff are reporting symptoms.

Why it’s significant: The Wuhan coronavirus was first reported to the World Health Organization at the end of 2019. Widespread and near-constant media reporting has tracked the spread of the COVID-19 around the world, including the diagnosis of multiple patients in the U.S.

The exposure of prehospital care providers in the U.S. has been inevitable since airports began screening international travelers in the early weeks of 2020. In the days and weeks ahead, we are certain to receive additional reports of prehospital care providers exposed to patients known or suspected to be infected with COVID-19.

Top takeaways: The Kirkland Fire Department, as of a 2018 annual report, had 92 line personnel, all firefighters hold EMT certification and a minimum daily staffing of 20 personnel. The abundantly cautious quarantine has reduced the department’s available personnel by 25%. Though there is much we don’t know, such as the planned length of the quarantine, the possibility that the number of quarantined personnel will increase or the time since the personnel were exposed, COVID-19 preparedness should be top of mind today for every police officer, EMT, paramedic and firefighter.

1. Quarantine is a significant action

In the early phase of this pandemic, a quarantine that sidelines a quarter of a department’s workforce is a significant action on the individuals in quarantine, their coworkers and neighboring agencies, as well as friends, family and the public. Every department’s senior leaders, including their medical director and public health officials, need to discuss as soon as possible:

  • Risk-benefit of a quarantine to the providers, their close friends and family and the services the department is obligated to provide.
  • Availability of local public health, infection control and emergency medicine to give input on the criteria for a quarantine and then how to implement it effectively.
  • Pay and benefits members will receive during quarantine, and if those personnel are quarantined in a station, what duties will they be expected to perform during the workday and how they will be provisioned with food, medications, bedding and other living supplies.
  • A reduction in services during the quarantine period depending on the number of personnel not available for assignment and their usual roles and responsibilities.

2. Get informed about COVID-19

Everyone in your department, from the newest recruit to the department chief, needs to get up to speed on COVID-19, including how it spreads, the symptoms and how to prevent exposure and transmission.

Seek out and only share information from reliable, science-based organizations. Top institutions to follow and share with your coworkers, friends, family and community include the:

If your community is more likely to respond positively to a local source, share information your state and county public health departments are receiving from the WHO and CDC.

This interactive map from Johns Hopkins University is an especially effective way to understand the global spread of COVID-19.

3. Improve your hygiene and infection control practices now

The most important individual actions we can all take to limit the spread of COVID-19, influenza and the common cold are the basics:

  • Wash your hands before and after every patient contact.
  • Wash your hands after glove removal and before inputting data into a mobile data terminal or driving your vehicle.
  • Don’t touch your face during patient contact, assessment and treatment.
  • Wear eye protection and a mask when performing airway management procedures.
  • Catch your cough in your elbow.
  • If you are sick, follow department policies to stay home.

Hand hygiene isn’t just for the field providers. Make sure personnel in the training center or academy, dispatch center and emergency operations center are serious about infection control. Disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer should readily available to all.

Finally, you are still at greater risk of getting influenza. The flu shot is still available and worth getting.

4. Inform high-risk communities about COVID-19

It’s not likely a surprise for anyone in public safety that the mass exposure of personnel in Washington was at a nursing and rehab facility. Concentrations of people who are ill and injured are susceptible to becoming infected and transmitting infections from the common cold to influenza to methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Clostridium difficile (C. diff) to caregivers as well as visitors. Make sure the administrators, infection control officers and patient care providers in skilled nursing facilities, rehab centers, jails, homeless shelters and treatment clinics for high-risk conditions, like dialysis and drug abuse, are taking the appropriate actions to prevent the spread of all infections, as well as informing their clients, visitors and vendors of appropriate infection control practices.

5. Inform the public about COVID-19

The risk of misinformation about COVID-19 is high. As a public safety provider, you are one of the most trusted members of your community. Use that goodwill and your authority to inform others through news conferences, press releases, social posts and personal visits to high-risk locations in your community.

Focus on messages which are factual and actionable. This pandemic is serious. Attempts at humor, like an Arkansas Sheriff offering to test meth for coronavirus diminish our authority and goodwill.

6. Deliver all-hazards preparedness messages

There is an abundance of local and national reports about people stocking up on food, medicines and hygiene supplies. Reach out to your media contacts to discuss COVID-19 preparedness specifically and all-hazard preparedness generally.

An Update on Kirkland’s Response to COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Outbreak included these recommendations, which are applicable to the general public in any village, town or city:

  • Have a plan to care for family members should they get sick or schools/offices be closed.
  • Know workplace telecommute options and school/daycare policies.
  • Stock up on food supplies and prescription medications now to avoid leaving home if you or someone in your household becomes infected.
  • Do not go to the emergency room unless essential. Emergency rooms need to be able to serve those with the most critical needs. If you have symptoms like cough, fever, or other respiratory problems, contact your regular doctor first.

Greg Friese, MS, NRP, is the Lexipol Editorial Director, leading the efforts of the editorial team on PoliceOne, FireRescue1, Corrections1, EMS1 and Gov1. Greg served as the EMS1 editor-in-chief for five years. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree from the University of Idaho. He is an educator, author, national registry paramedic since 2005, and a long-distance runner. Greg was a 2010 recipient of the EMS 10 Award for innovation. He is also a three-time Jesse H. Neal award winner, the most prestigious award in specialized journalism, and the 2018 and 2020 Eddie Award winner for best Column/Blog. Connect with Greg on Twitter or LinkedIn and submit an article idea or ask questions by emailing him at