First responders guard against virus


As people in communities throughout the world batten down the hatches against the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 virus, first responders and medical teams are still showing up for work each day at the front lines of the pandemic.

Here in Taos County, which recorded its first case this week when a man in his 50s visiting Taos Ski Valley tested positive with the virus, local law enforcement agencies and county medics modified their routines in order to reduce the risk of getting infected themselves.

Staff at Holy Cross Medical Center, Taos County's critical access hospital, has been working around the clock to accommodate an increasing number of people who have shown up with suspicions they may have the virus. Medical technicians donning protective gear from head to toe currently staff the entrance to the emergency room on Weimer Road, which is now the hospital's sole entrance. All visitors must now participate in a verbal screening before they are permitted to enter the facility.

Testing for the virus

Protocol from the New Mexico Department of Health dictates that people who feel they have the most common symptoms of COVID-19 - fever, cough and shortness of breath - and especially if they have recently traveled out of the state or country, are asked to first call the coronavirus hotline at (855) 600-3453 to be screened.

Only then should they visit the local facility to be further screened and possibly tested. Testing currently consists of either a nose and throat swab or a sampling of mucus, if the patient's cough is productive; the sample is then sent to one of two labs in Albuquerque for processing, which can take a few days before results are available.

A Taos County resident who was tested on Monday (March 16) said the hospital had already taken samples from 31 people that day. He went through the screening process over the phone prior to visiting the hospital. Now he's waiting for his results to come back, which he was told could take up to five days.

As a precaution, he has quarantined himself inside his home, which all people who suspect they might have the virus - and even those who are healthy - have been asked to do in order to prevent a spike in COVID-19 cases, a scenario authorities fear will cause the disease to spiral further out of control.

While many people in the early stages of the virus will likely be able to get to and from testing, Taos County Emergency Services Chief Chris Medina is preparing himself and his team of 21 staff members to safely pick up and transport those who can't, such as the elderly and disabled.

"Our 911 center has a certain module in their system that will ask [the caller] about infectious diseases," Medina said, adding that the questions a dispatcher will ask a caller are similar to those asked when someone calls the statewide coronavirus hotline.

Short supplies

Before his medics get into an ambulance to pick someone up, they will put on gowns and N95 masks, one of several critical pieces of protective medical equipment that has been targeted by hoarders who, either driven by fear or a desire to price gouge, have created a shortage for the people who need them the most.

Supplies of the N95 have been under strict guidelines regarding where the remaining masks in the United States get sent. For now, Medina says his team has enough, but the ones they do have could get soiled, torn or otherwise damaged - to the point they may be unusable. In light of projections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the current pandemic could go on for several months, that's a real possibility he's trying to prepare for.

But that isn't easy.

"I put in orders about a month ago for a lot of this equipment, and it hasn't shown up," Medina said. "Basically, it will come when it comes and if the distributor decides there's an outbreak somewhere it's all going to get sent there."

Law enforcement

Meanwhile, local law enforcement agencies, whose officers spend their shifts in contact with the public, are also strategizing how to stay healthy in light of the virus's confirmed presence in the county and the likelihood that additional cases will be verified in the near future.

Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe is looking to limit traffic in his office, located off Albright Street near the Taos County Courthouse Complex. An intercom already installed at the front door to the building will be relied on to question visitors. All services will keep running as usual, he said, except for fingerprinting, which will only be performed in exceptional cases.

"We are not doing fingerprints for the public right now because that requires admission into the back part of our office and personal contact, [unless] someone had an urgent need," Sheriff Hogrefe said.

He has also equipped all of his deputies with Lysol disinfectant spray to carry in their patrol units, along with protective masks to place on sick people they may encounter after gaining consent. Deputies also carry gloves.

"We did some impromptu training to understand proper use of the gloves and proper disposal," Hogrefe said. "You don't want to lay those on a table or on a seat. You want to throw them away immediately."

John Wentz, the recently appointed police chief for the town of Taos police department, is taking similar precautions. His officers have been reminded of one of the most basic, theoretically effective means of staying health in the midst of a contagious virus: social distancing.

"We're trying to maintain a 6-foot safe space with others and [we're] watching for people exhibiting symptoms," he said. "We carry gloves and masks on our person in case we need them, and if the situation dictates it we may be wearing these items when we make contact with the public. After contact we thoroughly disinfect ourselves and our equipment."

While COVID-19 is a real cause of concern and reason for everyone to take reasonable precautions, Hogrefe and Medina had another common message for people in Taos County: Don't panic and stop hoarding.

Jail changes

All new intakes at the Taos County Adult Detention Center will be screened for the virus. Visitation, including from volunteers, has been suspended entirely until April 6, according to county manager Brent Jaramillo. Attorneys working with detainees on their cases will only be allowed to meet with their clients in a "noncontact visitation room."

The jail has also been equipped with masks, Germ-X Hand Sanitizer, Clorox wipes and Lysol. Door handles inside the facility will also be cleaned regularly and the facility's air circulation system has been adjusted to allow fresh air in and out of the jail, "with no air recirculation," Jaramillo said.


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