Officials: No Cortland cases, but police and fire gearing up for Coronavirus

With the threat of the new coronavirus looming, city police and fire departments are taking extra precautions as they continue to respond to everyday emergencies.

As of 5 p.m., there were no cases of COVID-19 infections in Cortland County, according to the Cortland County Health Department.

“There are no positive cases to date,” said Public Health Director Catherine Feuerherm in a phone interview. “We heard reports of some people getting tested by their physician,” Feuerherm said, but none tested positive. 

But city officials are taking action to limit first responders’ exposure to the COVID-19 infection. The plans are crucial to protecting emergency workers’ health, to prevent them from unwittingly spreading the virus on calls and to maintaining staff levels, according to city police and fire administrators.

“We’re trying not to get our officers sick and trying not to spread it around the community,” said police Lt. Michael Strangeway in an interview this afternoon.

While both the police and fire departments will continue to respond to calls 24/7, they may wear additional protective gear or stand further away to try to limit the virus’ spread, city officials said.

Both police Chief F. Michael Catalano and fire Chief Wayne Friedman emphasized at a press conference this morning the importance of telling 911 dispatchers all you know about your emergency, including if someone is ill with a fever, cough or is in quarantine. That way dispatchers can tell first responders if they need to take extra precautions.

“We need to know that to keep this as contained as possible,” Catalano said.

Firefighters have everything from gloves and masks, to gowns and protective suits, available to use when responding to a medical call, Friedman said this afternoon. 

“We’re going to don this equipment quicker than we have in the past to protect our people,” Friedman said, adding they may ask patients to wear a mask to protect themselves from any potential germs on the firefighters.

City police officers also carry protective gear on a regular basis and may use more of it, depending on the call, Catalano said at the conference.

“It could be as simple as gloves,” said Strangeway this afternoon. “Theoretically, it could go as far as a Tyvek suit, if we’re dealing with someone that's been quarantined.”

Officers from both departments will try to maintain a distance of about six feet from other people, according to officials. The Centers for Disease Control states experts believe the virus can spread between people within a six-foot radius of each other.

For police, that will mean taking reports of some crimes not currently in progress over the phone or by email, Catalano said. These cases might include already-occurred larcenies or frauds, Strangeway explained.

“There will be no interruption of service, of police service to residents of Cortland,” Catalano said. “We do expect to do business a little bit differently.”

Firefighters responding to a medical call will ask the patient screening questions before entering their home if the patient is stable enough to respond, Friedman said this afternoon. If the patient needs immediate care, then officers will put on their gear and get right to treatment, he said.

“We’re not going to hold up necessary treatment,” Friedman said.

Police officers are often dispatched to emergency medical cases as well, and the officers will have to determine the appropriate response depending on the call, Strangeway said. 

“It really is going to have to be called on a case by case basis whether or not our presence at a scene is going to do good instead of harm,” Strangeway said. He noted city officers are deeply committed to serving the community. “We just have to exercise caution,” he said, “so that we make sure that we maintain a healthy police force so that we can do the things we need to do to continue policing the city.”

For the small Cortland Fire Department, having just four or five firefighters out sick or in quarantine could make a big difference, said Friedman in a Monday afternoon interview. The fire department would have to back fill those positions, Friedman said, adding his command staff are discussing how best to do that.

Among the changes at the fire department is cleaning and sanitizing the stations twice a day, not allowing visitors to the stations and limiting the amount of meetings the firefighters are in, Friedman said. Firefighters will also be using SUV’s more as they are easier to disinfect than the fire trucks, even if that means firefighter crews will have to split up between the SUVs and the trucks, he said.

Among Friedman’s greatest concerns is that a firefighter will accidentally bring the virus home to his or her family.

“That’s my biggest fear,” he said.

Strangeway noted city residents already seem to be taking precautions and not going out as much.

“It does seem like there are fewer people around,” he said.

City Mayor Brian Tobin urged at this morning’s news conference for city residents to remember their neighbors, put people first and take precautions.

”We have to change how we act,” Tobin said. “Let’s start functioning with the mentality that it's here and were going to take the necessary steps to stay safe.”