Centre County Emergency Responders, Hospital Take Steps To Prepare For COVID-19

Mar 16, 2020

Centre County emergency dispatchers ask 911 callers a series of questions if the person who needs help has flu-like symptoms.
Credit Anne Danahy / WPSU

While there are no known cases of the coronavirus in central or northcentral Pennsylvania, COVID-19 is moving across the state, and emergency care providers say they are taking steps to be ready.

“911. What’s the address of your emergency?”

That’s Paige Redman, a Centre County 911 dispatcher, taking a call. The woman says her husband is having trouble breathing. After getting the woman’s address and her husband’s age, Redman asks her something else: “OK, has he been out of the country or been around anybody that’s been sick that’s traveled out of the country lately?”

“No, no," the woman answers.

That question is part of a new protocol from the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.

Centre County Emergency Communications/911 Director Dale Neff said it means the dispatchers dig deeper if they get a call for someone who has flu-like symptoms.

“What exactly are they suffering from. Do they have runny nose, headaches, cough, sore throat, fever, shortness of breath. Do they know if they’ve been exposed to anyone who has COVID-19. Have they been anywhere where COVID-19 is an issue?”

Redman said some people chuckle when she asks those questions, but for the most part they understand.

“We need to be proactive and make sure that it’s handled appropriately, so that if we do have a case in the area, it’s handled appropriately so it’s not spread out further," she said.

The dispatchers provide the information to the emergency responders, who can then be prepared. Another step they’re taking is fine-tuning their back-up plans.

Emergency dispatchers have been trained to ask questions about people's symptoms to screen for possible COVID-19 cases.
Credit Anne Danahy / WPSU

“We’re trying to get ahead of that and be proactive," Neff said. "We recognize that if the general population begins to get sick that our staff may begin to get sick and we might have to operate with diminished human resources here.”

That means coordinating with other counties, local responders and Penn State. And, encouraging employees to take steps to stay healthy.

“Whatever happens, we’ll be prepared here to handle it,” Neff said.

As of Sunday, there were 63 cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania. Most of the cases have been in the eastern part of the state. But there are positive tests in the west and in Cumberland County, in southcentral Pennsylvania.

Nirmal Joshi is chief medical officer at Mount Nittany Medical Center.

“We are doing a whole host of things to get ready, which we in the healthcare world typically call preparedness," he said. 

That includes regular meetings, assessing supplies and communicating with staff.

If someone is concerned that they may have COVID-19 symptoms like cough, fever or shortness of breath, Joshi said call before showing up at a doctor’s office or emergency room.

“What we are trying to tell people is it’s always a good idea to call first, if we can, for obvious public health reasons," he said. "Our first goal is caring for the patient, and our second goal is to protect everyone: the community, the caregivers, everyone.”

Joshi said Mount Nittany has sent a handful of samples for testing to the state. None have come back positive. But he expects the need for testing to increase.

“There is no question in my mind that people who are suspected will rise, and therefore we will have a need to do more testing," Joshi said. "That part is reasonably certain. How much we don’t know.”

Two commercial labs have begun offering testing nationally. 

“It will be logistically a whole lot simpler when the testing will become more easily available," Joshi said.

In the meantime, Joshi and others say frequent handwashing and social distancing are the best ways to prevent getting COVID-19.