PRINCETON — First-responders are ready, there is no need to panic or hoard supplies, and everyone is working together to handle the changing situation with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic threat.
Those were some of the messages from the City of Princeton’s new Coronavirus (COVID-19) Task Force that met for the first time Monday morning, bringing together first-responders, city and school leaders, and Princeton Community Hospital representatives.
“The city wants to be as proactive as possible to get ahead of the curve regarding the coronavirus threat,” said Mayor David Graham.
“Our main goal is to see what resources everybody and what resources everybody needs, what plans you have to deal with this issue,” Chad Bailey, chief of the Princeton Fire Department, said.
Although people are told to limit their exposures, “first responders will have a difficult time doing that ,” he said, but will do what needs to be done.
“We are always prepared,” said Princeton Rescue Squad President Stacey Hicks. “That is what emergency service does.”
Hicks said a few changes have been made during this pandemic threat, including no vacations for staff just in case of a “mass amount of transportation” related to the virus.
“This thing could be a lot bigger than what we think, and I hope and pray it’s not,” he said. “If it does hit, we will be doing a lot of transports. We have all of our administrators on call 24/7. We are staying on top of it.”
Hicks said emergency personnel are often cross-trained and, for example, a fireman may be an EMT, and all work together when needed.
Mutual aid agreements with area ambulance services, rescue squads and fire departments are in place in case of an overload, he added.
Mark Pickett, director of emergency preparedness at Princeton Community Hospital, said if the virus hits and the number of cases increase, the hospital has a plan.
“Elective things would be stopped to increase bed (capacity),” he said. “It will provide additional staff as well.”
Pickett said the county is in a district that includes McDowell, Monroe, Raleigh, Summers and Wyoming counties.
“We have a memorandum of understanding with all hospitals in the region for aid and assistance,” he said, adding that the situation is updated daily and updated at the state level each Friday.
“We have had our eyes on all of these activities since Jan. 21, watching it evolve,” he said, adding that the West Virginia Hospital Association opened a “portal” nine months ago to help keep on top of situations like this, allowing emergency managers to know what supplies that may be needed and what can be offered.
“To some degree, there is an ability for seeing what resources that people have to share,” he said.
The hospital has had a biological screening process in place since 2008-09 and dealt with the H1N1, SARS and ebola virus scares.
“Screenings for people coming in from overseas traveling is nothing new to us,” he said, and the hospital keeps up with “ever-changing guidelines,” and that could include temperatures checks on people entering buildings that “may be prudent if an active case shows up.”
Pickett said that, right now, the advice at the hospital is the same as other entities, “if you are sick don’t come to work.”
Hicks said it’s a matter of being ready for about anything and having the resources to handle it.
Bailey and Hicks also said that people should stay home if they can but there is no need for panic.
“How do we keep people out of the panic mode?” Bailey asked. “What can we do as a group to calm fears and make sure we make it through this without any major problem?”
All agreed there is no reason to fear or to hoard supplies, and the best advice is to follow guidelines recommended as to handwashing and staying home if possible.
Mercer County Emergency Coordinator Tim Farley said he saw one popular restaurant beside I-77 in Princeton Monday morning that is usually packed had only three cars in the parking lot.
“I think people are staying at home,” he said. “People are limiting their exposure and being good citizens.”
However, Hicks said there is nothing wrong with going through restaurant drive-throughs to help local businesses. Several restaurants, include Chick-Fil-A, are offering drive-through service only.
“Don’t be afraid to go out and get a hamburger,” he said. “Businesses are hurting. If people are afraid to go to these places they could start shutting down. We need to take precautions but sometimes we can overreact and hurt others in the process.”
Hicks said people need to “continue life as we know it” the best we can and to practice caution.
One issue that also surfaced is the availability of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), which is needed by first-responders.
Farley said people can be a carrier of the virus and not know it, so that gear, including masks and gloves, are needed.
“Protective gear can be in short supply,” he said, adding that a federal stockpile is in West Virginia with the National Guard and he has made a request for additional PPE.
“Until there is a demand for it, though, those PPE stockpiles will not be accessed…” he said. “Fifty-five counties are asking for the same thing … our name is in the hat.”
Beverly Crenshaw, deputy director of the Mercer County 911 Center, said first-responders have to respond to situations with often sketchy details.
“You never know what they will run in to,” he said, adding that people who call may not give accurate information.
“We ask them the basic questions about the type of symptoms, but it is sometimes hard to get them to tell the truth,” she said. “When you get on the scene, you can’t be sure.”
That’s why it is imperative to have the PPE.
“It’s a problem we are going to face,” Bailey said. “I don’t know what we are going to do in terms of equipment (PPE). We have very little. I tried to order masks but could not get them.”
“We have about 400 masks,” Hicks said. “If you run out, come see me.
Princeton Police Chief Tim Gray said for now it’s business as usual.
“We are answering calls,” he said. “If we are called, we go. We may limit traffic stops but we are not at that point yet. We just can’t stop doing what we are doing.”
One concern that came up was the possibility that first-responders would start getting sick, and others may have to be quarantined.
“We work in such an enclosed environment,” Farley said. “If somebody becomes it will be a problem.”
“We have mutual aid agreements with others in the region,” Hicks said. “We will start using them if personnel is lost (to sickness). We have a lot of mutual aid agreements.”
“We work well together between all the services,” Bailey said. “I think we are ready. We may have to set up an emergency quarantine zone, but we will be ready.”
“You have to stay prepared for things like this and I think we are,” Hicks said. “Mercer County is blessed to have the best first-responders in the state. We all work together. It’s important … to let the community know that we are here, we are going to take care of them. We are not going away.”
“This is reassuring for me,” Graham said, adding that it’s good to also reassure the general public that a system is in place with good people. “We are blessed.”
— Contact Charles Boothe at firstname.lastname@example.org