Emergency medical providers fear information gap in local cases of coronavirus
Friday, March 20, 2020 | 6:28 PM
As covid-19 cases continue to rise in Allegheny County, so do worries among some emergency personnel who fear being exposed to the virus without knowing it.
“Basically, it is frustrating at this time that the Allegheny County Health Department has no system in place to provide municipalities with a confirmed case count in their municipality,” said Chuck Miller, emergency management coordinator in Penn Hills.
As of Friday, Allegheny County reported a total of 28 cases. Five of those are hospitalized and the rest are in isolation at home. The Pennsylvania Department of Health reported 83 additional cases Friday, bringing the state’s total to 268.
One person has died from covid-19 in the state.
Penn Hills is one of four communities within Allegheny County that have set up an emergency operations center, which tracks covid-19 cases and provides residents with up-to-date information and resources about the virus. Miller said it would be helpful to know if any of the county’s 28 cases of covid-19 were in Penn Hills.
“This would raise better awareness for both first responders and citizens because once cases become real in any given area, people are more likely to take social distancing and orders from the governor more seriously,” Miller said.
Allegheny County spokeswoman Amie Downs said sharing the information wouldn’t change expectations on how the public should respond to the outbreak.
“Regardless of where people live, and regardless of where cases are, the public should react and respond in the same way,” Downs said in an email. She said if people are ill, they should stay home and call their primary care physician for guidance. For immediate help, call 911.
And “if you’re not ill, practice social distancing. Wash your hands, etc.,” Downs said.
“The Health Department and Emergency Services have been consulting with the agencies throughout the county since January and continue to provide them with the information and equipment that they need. The assumption is that anyone having symptoms and/or potential risk could have covid-19 and responders are encouraged to respond to calls accordingly,” she said.
Monroeville police Chief Doug Cole agrees with Miller, but he understands the county’s reasoning.
“The more info we know, the better off we are,” Cole said. “But we don’t want to make them like lepers either.”
Nevertheless, he said, first responders and police officers need to “make darn sure we stay as healthy as we can.”
“Because if we do get sick, we’re out of the game for 14 days,” he said, referring to how long the CDC says it takes to see symptoms from the virus.
In Pittsburgh, the city’s first responders were told this week they won’t be notified if they are exposed to a person later testing positive for covid-19. Officials have said the situation poses a potential public health risk.
“If their health and their families’ health is not being protected, it diminishes their ability to protect and serve the community. I share their concerns and hope that we come to a resolution expeditiously,” said Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich in a statement.
Nate Wardle, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Health Department, said Wednesday the department has moved from containment to mitigation and is no longer tracing cases, which means they are not reaching out to people who come into contact with an infected person.
“With more than 100 cases in Pennsylvania, contact tracing would involve working to contact thousands of people, and that will only increase,” Wardle said.
Brian Maloney, operations director for Plum EMS, said knowing if covid-19 is in his community wouldn’t matter.
“We’re treating any flu-like symptoms as potential covid-19 patients. We take precautions for each one. We’ve been doing this for a few weeks to minimize exposure,” he said.
Maloney commended the county’s 911 dispatch center, whose dispatchers have been screening calls for potential covid-19 cases.
“They’re being assessed by a representative from 911 services. So there are a lot of systems in place to prevent (exposure),” Maloney said.
But if someone slips through the cracks?
“We’ll have equipment on all the time,” he said. “We’re still going to take the steps necessary to take care of our crew and patient.”