First Responders and the COVID-19 Pandemic
by Lee and Denene Lofland
During the early months of 2020, police officers, as part of their daily duties, responded to fights-in-progress, robberies, assaults, break-ins, thefts and, well, the usual plethora of criminal activity, all in a “business as usual” manner. They, of course, practiced officer safety—watch the hands of a suspect, protect against ambush, utilize proper arrest techniques and defensive tactics, and other academy-taught skills. Then, practically within the time it takes to sneeze, the world changed, and when it did the manner in which police officers perform their daily responsibilities abruptly turned on its head.
When COVID-19 invaded the globe, law enforcement officers suddenly found themselves in the unusual position of standing on the line between public safety and public health. As essential service providers that include EMS and hospital staff, police officers continued reporting to work even in environments that lacked necessary protective equipment, all while forced to interact with people who may or may not be infected.
In 2020, 340 police officers died in the line of duty. Of that number, 219 died due to COVID-19. Gunfire deaths were the second leading cause of officer line of duty deaths at fifty.
After the January 6, 2021 violent incident at the US Capitol, at least thirty-eight law enforcement officers tested positive for COVID-19 after up-close encounters with the rioters. Approximately 150 of 26,000 National Guard members deployed to the Capitol since January 6 also tested positive.
Overall, nearly sixty-five firefighters have died due to the pandemic. The EMS relative risk of COVID infection is twenty percent higher than for firefighters. According to an October report by the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, the national fatality rate for the US population is 66.4 per 100,000, but the relative risk for NYC EMS is thirty-six percent higher.
In the US, over 2.1 million inmates are currently crammed into 5,000 overcrowded and poorly ventilated prisons and jails. Many of these facilities utilize dormitory-style housing where as many as 200 or more inmates share living spaces. Compounding the problem are open-bar cell doors, and a high rate of recidivism.
In California, as of February 4, 2021, 1,816 prisoners are known to have active cases of COVID-19. The number of inmates who died because of the virus is 199. Twenty-five corrections staff members have also died due to COVID and15,472 employees were reported with active cases.
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Since this new strain of virus has not been identified in humans before, everyone is vulnerable to infection. The virus is primarily spread by close contact with an infected person, and even infected people with absolutely no symptoms are able to transmit the virus.
Transmission of the disease is most common when a susceptible person (someone who has not been infected) is within six feet of a person who has COVID-19. The virus is found in respiratory droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose that become airborne during coughing, sneezing, talking and singing, and when yelling obscenities directly into the faces of officers.
For first responders—police, emergency medical services, and firefighters—maintaining a proper six-to-ten-foot safe social distance typically isn’t a realistic option. During the course of their shifts EMS personnel must still treat and transport sick and injured patients to the hospital, firefighters continue to battle blazes and rescue people from burning buildings, and police officers arrest criminals every single hour of every day, including those who prey on and take advantage of vulnerable people, such as the elderly who are experiencing issues stemming from COVID-19.
Front line law enforcement personnel regularly interact with members of the general public as part of their everyday responsibilities, including encounters that often involve serious physical scuffles in order to arrest and restrain offenders who are violent and combative.
Since we now know a bit more about COVID-19, instead of the typical approach where officers arrived on-scene and immediately hopped out of the patrol cars to meet “whatever” heads-on and face-to-face, they’re often encouraged to think outside the typical “slap on the cuffs” approach to all lawbreakers.
Instead, in cases of nonviolent misdemeanor offenses, it could be appropriate to issue a summons in lieu of a physical detainment. In some instances, even felonies may receive a summons, or ticket in lieu of arrest. After all, courts and jails nowadays are releasing scores of prisoners as a means to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection within jail and prison facilities.
A “hands-off” approach is always the desire of police officers. The objective is to safely go about their days without being injured and without harming others. No one takes any pleasure of having to physically force another person to comply with a lawful arrest, especially when the suspect is obviously much larger, stronger, and as mean and nasty as a junkyard dog. I know from personal knowledge that it’s not a pleasant experience when a rock-hard, ham-sized fist connects with your face. So yes, smooth-
talking has always been an officer’s greatest tool, a tool that when used properly helps to avoid unnecessary conflict . . . and pain.
Unfortunately, many criminal offenders resist verbal commands and then escalate to extreme physical resistance when officers use force to ensure compliance. This skin-to-skin, muscle-against-muscle contact, a closeness where the officer’s face is often near enough to the offender’s nose and mouth to detect whatever delicacy the bad guy consumed for lunch simply by inhaling the crook’s exhalations, could result in officers contracting the virus if the offender is infected.
Other instances where officers may be exposed include crowds of protestors, large parties, traffic stops, and even responding to calls for service at businesses where they arrive to find customers and employees failing to wear masks and follow safe social distancing guidelines. In one instance, a thirty-one-year-old North Carolina man who live-streamed himself on Facebook inside a Walmart store, claiming to have tested positive for the coronavirus. Obviously, his actions caused great fear to store patrons and employees.
Police charged the man with perpetrating a hoax in a public building, a felony, and disorderly conduct. Responding officers had no means of knowing if the man’s claim was real or not, therefore they had to approach the situation from the standpoint of having to deal with someone who could possibly infect them with the deadly disease.
To reduce exposure to COVID-19, many departments are triaging crime and avoiding arrests unless it’s absolutely crucial that they do so. Several departments now prioritize calls which often results in deferred or alternative responses to certain types of activity, such as loud music and other nuisance offenses, lost items, and minor property damages that are likely civil matters, not criminal.
When and where available, police officers are issued personal protective equipment. They’re instructed to ask people they encounter during calls for service about possible symptoms of COVID-19.
Some agencies have canceled their daily roll call/muster, opting to pass along information to officers through their in-car mobile data terminals. Training has been canceled to avoid close contact with other officers and instructors.
Instead of speaking to an officer stationed in a police station lobby, several departments now require the public to use a lobby phone to speak with a desk officer or dispatcher who works behind a protective sheet of glass, or in an unseen office somewhere in a rear office at the back of the building.
For crimes where the potential to collect evidence is minimal or practically nonexistent, an on-scene response may not be required. Therefore, information from the caller is obtained during a phone conversation.
To lessen contact with the public, selected special operations have been placed on hold. Traffic operations have been reduced, with many of those officers, as well as some detectives, now assigned to patrol divisions to allow the staggering of times when officers report to work. Therefore, if one officer is exposed to the virus the entire shift would not be at risk.
The remaining traffic officers may be advised to direct their focus on pressing public safety issues such as DUI and reckless driving, leaving minor infractions such as parking violations, expired tags, faulty equipment, and illegally tinted windows, for another day.
Companies that manufacture and supply police and crime scene equipment, tools, and other materials have been forced to adapt to COVID-19 as well. For example, to meet the needs and requests of the law enforcement community, Sirchie, the global leader in Crime Scene Investigation and Forensic Science Solutions, began manufacturing their own brand of hand sanitizer. They and other police, EMS, and forensics supply companies also increased their capabilities of delivering masks and other protective gear.
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At the end of an officer’s shift, they should immediately disinfect their gear. It’s an absolute must that they do the same after physically contacting another person, such as when handcuffing someone, separating individuals engaged in physical altercations, scuffling with a combative subject, etc. The decontaminating steps should include all gear, including the duty belt and equipment carried on the belt, vest, shoes, hat, and handcuffs.
Of course, assuming the officer wore gloves and a mask during the disinfecting process, they should promptly and safely remove and discard those items and then replace with a new mask and gloves. Hand sanitizer should be properly applied, often. It, a supply of N95 masks, and disinfectant wipes should be part of an officer’s standard equipment.
Other items that should be disinfected include any and everything they touched during their shift, such as cell phones, in-car computers and radio microphones, steering wheel, flashlight, baton, shotgun, gear shift, spotlight handle, door handles and doorframe, arm rests, coffee cup, and yes, donut boxes.
Once they’ve signed off duty, officers should once again disinfect their duty belts, shoes, gear, etc. Any visible contamination, such as body fluids, should be removed and the items cleaned with appropriate cleaners indicated for use on those surfaces. Clothing should be laundered using the warmest appropriate water setting for the items and then dried completely.
It’s a good idea to keep a change of clothes on hand at the station. Then, if possible, shower and slip on the fresh clothing before heading home. Some departments have set up portable decontamination trailers or tents for use by officers and other first responders.
During the end of shift sanitizing process, the officer has a few moments to reflect on the source behind all the scrubbing, hand cleansing, and wearing of protective equipment. They realize that their job is difficult and extremely dangerous.
Day in and day out police officers must deal with the constant threat of ambushes, assaults, incoming gunfire, knife-wielding suspects, robbers, rapists, child killers, and more, and they must endure the emotional aftermath of seemingly endless violent and horrifying events.
But, in spite of all the murder and mayhem, there’s a slight sense of comfort knowing that when they go home, they can leave the bad guys and their crimes behind until their next shift rolls around. Home, as it should be, is a sanctuary from all the gloom and doom and despair of the world.
But COVID-19, well, it’s a killer that officers and other first responders can’t see. Nevertheless, they’re acutely aware that it could follow them home to attack and potentially kill their family members, from grandparents down to the tiny infant fast asleep in their crib. The very idea compounds the extreme stresses associated with the job.
Without a doubt, COVID-19 poses a huge risk to the physical wellbeing of officers and other first responders. It also takes a toll on their mental health. The constant worry about the “what-ifs” understandably causes a great deal of distress and, sadly, some have taken their own lives due to the stresses associated with the pandemic.
Witnessing the effects of the virus as it raced around the globe practically at the speed of light has been surreal to say the least. It seems as if it should be fictional entity, a “thing” that should’ve lived in the far corners of Hitchcock’s mind. If only . . .
Dr. Denene Lofland is a renowned expert on microbiology and bioterrorism. She’s published numerous peer reviewed articles, contributed to and edited chapters in Bailey and Scott's Diagnostic Microbiology, a textbook used by universities and medical schools. Dr. Lofland is part of the faculty for the National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners, and she was recently named a Fellow of the Association of Clinical Scientists.
She’s managed hospital laboratories and for many years worked as senior director at biotech companies specializing in new drug discovery, including drugs prescribed to treat cystic fibrosis and bacterial pneumonia. She has also managed a team of scientists who worked in an undisclosed, secure location. Her work there was for the US military, with a focus on bioterrorism. She is currently the director of the medical diagnostics program at a major university, where she was recently interviewed for a Delaware public service announcement/video about COVID-19.
Lee Lofland, a police and crime scene investigation expert, is a former police detective turned writer and blogger. He’s the author of Police Procedure and Investigation, a Guide for Writers (Writer’s Digest Books/Penguin). He’s also appeared as an expert on national television and on NPR Radio. Lee has contributed to or written numerous national media news articles for organizations such as Slate Magazine, major newspapers, Writer’s Digest Magazine, Writer Magazine, and FOX News.
Together, Lee and Denene Lofland founded the annual Writers’ Police Academy and its special event, MurderCon, and Writers’ Police Academy Online. They’re also publishers at New Arc Books, an imprint of Level Best Books, and contributing authors in the Writers’ Police Academy anthologies, After Midnight, Tales From the Graveyard Shift and People are Strange, Tales From the Graveyard Shift, published by Level Best.
Copyright © 2021. Lee and Denene Lofland