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Harford 911 operators screening for coronavirus over phone, sheriff’s office taking precautions

Though Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey R. Gahler is not familiar with any of his deputies coming into contact with anyone who tested positive for the novel coronavirus sweeping through Maryland, his office and the county’s dispatch service are taking steps to ensure the safety of personnel.

The sheriff’s office, Gahler said, has an increased presence at its southern precinct in Edgewood, where it is taking reports of some lower-level crimes over the phone — no personal contact necessary — to decrease the chances of deputies getting sick. The telephone reporting unit is being staffed by school resource and community policing officers.

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Harford County’s emergency services are also asking 911 callers a question to screen them for any possible sickness and prevent first-responders’ exposure to the virus.

Director of Governmental and Community Affairs Cindy Mumby said 911 operators are now asking callers if anyone on the scene of an incident has a fever or has been coughing, so law enforcement and other first responders “know what the situation is [they] are entering into.”

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If they answer yes, Mumby said, callers are directed to keep themselves and others away from the person in question, and first responders are equipped with personal protective equipment — gloves, gowns, masks and eye-shields — when they respond.

“We do that to alert first responders that they could possibly be exposed to coronavirus,” Mumby said.

Even in view of the pandemic, deputies still have to do their jobs, Gahler said, which puts them in close contact with people.

"We have a service to provide … but we are trying to figure out how to provide that services with as little citizen/deputy contact as possible,” he said. “With this outbreak, we want to limit the exposure of our deputies.”

All deputies are equipped with personnel protective equipment — N-95 masks, rubber gloves and eye protection — and though Harford’s sheriff’s office is “adequately” staffed, there is a national shortage of the protective equipment, Gahler said. Most of the protective equipment was purchased in years past to protect deputies from exposure to fentanyl, the synthetic opioid responsible for many overdose deaths, but can be just as easily used for viral protection.

“You are trying to keep something as small as a grain of salt from being inhaled,” Gahler said of fentanyl. Keeping the virus away from deputies is the same in principal.

Though county residents should not expect a loss of service, Gahler said, the office is worried the self-sequestration recommended by the CDC could spur overdoses while people wait out the virus at home.

“That certainly concerns me,” Gahler said.

The office has not seen an uptick in domestic violence reports that some have speculated could arise from people being stuck in their homes, Gahler said, though it is a fluid situation.

“Sometimes people, I guess, they are cooped up together and don’t know how to tolerate individuals too long … necessitating a police response at inopportune times,” he said. “We have not seen it. I hope we will not see it.”

Local law enforcement agencies, Gahler said, are also responsible for enforcing Gov. Larry Hogan’s ban on gatherings of 10 or more people. Previously, the governor banned gatherings of 50 or more people; on Thursday he dropped the number to 10 or more.

Gahler said the citizens of Harford County are treating the virus seriously and keeping off the streets. As of Thursday, gatherings of 10 or more people are temporarily chargeable misdemeanors and carry a penalty of one year in jail, a $5,000 fine or both, according to the governor’s Thursday order.

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“I’ll be shocked if we have to charge anyone through this,” Gahler said, before adding, “I’ve been shocked before.”

The Harford County Detention Center is also a cause for concern, Gahler said.

No cases have been confirmed there, but infection could ripple through the closely housed population if introduced there. For that reason, the jail adopted screening guidelines for incoming arrestees and people reporting for weekend detention, checking their temperature on arrival, isolating inmates with a temperature higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit and immediately notifying medical personnel, who will check the inmate for other symptoms of COVID-19.

Between March 5 and 19, the jail processed 131 new inmates and 66 have been released, sheriff’s office spokeswoman Cristie Hopkins reported.

Gahler said that deputies at the jail are also having their temperatures taken.

As of Thursday, the virus has sickened 107 Marylanders and killed one Prince George’s County man in his 60s.

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