Chiefs say stay calm and wash your hands

  • The lobby at the Fernandina Beach Police Department has closed to help limit the potential spread of coronavirus, according to Chief Jim Hurley. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
    The lobby at the Fernandina Beach Police Department has closed to help limit the potential spread of coronavirus, according to Chief Jim Hurley. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER

In the face of a global pandemic, local first response teams are taking precautions and advising residents to do likewise, and to stay calm.

The News-Leader checked in with the chiefs of the Fernandina Beach fire and police departments as well as Nassau County Fire Chief Brady Rigdon and Sheriff Bill Leeper to see what has changed about their operations so far.

All departments are keeping up with county, state and federal partners such as the Florida Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization.

Each of the department heads said that they are maintaining normal staffing levels and that call volume has not risen so far. None has received a call related to coronavirus.

“We are staying busy, just in a different situation,” Leeper said. “We have a job to do. Crime doesn’t stop. We just have to be as cautious as we can.”

FBPD Chief Jim Hurley said that the lobby of the city’s police station is closed, but people can come to the station and ring in to speak to someone, although most business can be conducted through email, phone calls, or a text message. Accident reports can be obtained online and payments can be made with credit cards, he said.

“We are asking that people call us with non-critical issues,” Hurley said. “We’re just being responsible, not allowing ride-alongs, not talking to people in the community as much as we usually do. We can get the job done, most of the time, without being hands-on.”

All departments have ordered extra personal protective gear and are taking precautions.

“When our paramedics respond to a call, they usually just showed up in their uniforms,” FBFD Chief Ty Silcox said. “Now you might see us with gloves, masks or even gowns on.”

The protocol for responding to calls where a patient potentially has COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is aimed at limiting exposure, Rigdon said.

“If we get a call that a patient is symptomatic, we will only send in one crew member, or if the patient is able, we may ask them to step outside to be assessed,” he explained. “If they need to go to the hospital, we will determine how few crew members can handle the situation. Then, we call the hospital ahead and let them know we are coming. We take them to the closest hospital, and, if they test positive, the hospital lets us know.”

Rigdon said first responders correctly wearing their protective gear won’t be exposed even if a patient does have the virus.

Silcox is on the Board of Directors for the Florida Fire Chiefs’ Association and said that organization has frequent conference calls providing pertinent information.

The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has asked that law enforcement agencies institute a policy of issuing Notices to Appear in all eligible cases rather than arresting defendants. Leeper said his department follows that guideline as a rule, as did Hurley.

The association also asked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to order free virus testing for correctional officers, jail staff, and inmates. Leeper said the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office medical staff is screening employees, attorneys, vendors, and anyone else for fever and other virus symptoms before they enter the jail, as well as inmates.

Visits to inmates have been canceled, including video visits, in order to limit the number of people at the jail, Leeper said. Visitors can still make phone calls.

Earlier this week, DeSantis ordered bars and nightclubs in the state to close for 30 days and issued regulations regarding the number and proximity of customers in restaurants, but enforcement of those orders is not up to local law enforcement, Leeper said. If violations occur, they are referred to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which can suspend the license of either type of business.

The county’s fire and law enforcement chiefs all had the same advice: Heed precautions set by the CDC and the Health Department and stay calm.

“Do what you can to flatten the curve and continue to relax,” Silcox said. “Don’t freak out. We will get through this.” Silcox was referring to the strategy of flattening the pandemic’s curve of rising cases in the United States in an attempt to keep hospital capacities from being overwhelmed. Avoiding large public gatherings, working from home if possible, going out only if absolutely necessary, and taking extra care with hygiene both outside the home and in the home are all necessary for the strategy to work.

According to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “If you look at the curves of outbreaks, they go big peaks, and then come down. What we need to do is flatten that down,” “That would have less people infected. That would ultimately have less deaths. You do that by trying to interfere with the natural flow of the outbreak.”