All members of the public who show up at the West Vancouver Police station these days are being asked questions about possible COVID-19 symptoms before they get service. It’s a public-health screening the likes of which the department has never before deployed.
But while other forces are closing their counters because of the coronavirus, a spokesperson for the West Vancouver police, serving about 42,000 people in the municipality northwest of Vancouver, said they are trying to keep theirs open.
“This is an evolving situation," said Constable Nicole Braithwaite. "We could end up closing our doors tomorrow or a week from now, depending how the situation develops.”
She says that anyone who was ill would be asked to step behind a glass partition and be provided with personal protection equipment before being served.
The measures, which have yet to turn up anyone who says they are sick, are part of the new normal for Canadian police grappling to balance their work as first responders with the caution necessary to maintain social distancing to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
It’s a challenge paramedics also face.
“Every call we go to has the potential to be a COVID patient," said Dave Deines, president of the Paramedic Association of Canada, representing more than 20,000 members of the profession. "Some people don’t know they are infected,”
Mr. Deines, also vice-president of the Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of B.C. union, said all paramedics can do is go into incidents with what he calls “a high index of suspicion” – a professional term for being extremely vigilant.
Mr. Deines said he is hearing that the system is strained across Canada as paramedics deal with calls from people who are scared or want to be tested for COVID-19.
Paramedics in B.C., he said, have always had protective gear, including masks, gowns and face shields. Mr. Deines, a paramedic for 25 years, says in flu seasons of the past, a paramedic might have donned the gear once a shift. But he said he just spoke to a Vancouver paramedic who used it four times before noon in one shift.
He said three paramedics in B.C. have tested positive for COVID-19, and some are concerned the disease could deplete the ranks of first responders. “With a pandemic crisis like this, it’s all hands on deck,” he said.
Call-takers and dispatchers with the BC Emergency Health Services, which oversees the ambulance service, are on alert for indications of influenza-like symptoms in calls, and flag them for paramedics before patient contact, according to a statement from the agency.
Police are dealing with their own challenges. Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, representing 60,000 officers across the country, said police forces are in intense discussions with each other and health authorities on how to proceed.
Working from home is largely not an option for police, Mr. Stamatakis said in a recent interview. “You can’t respond to 911 calls from home. When the public call 911, they expect someone to show up."
Brian Sauvé, president of the recently formed RCMP union, the National Police Federation, said police have generally had protocols for dealing with members of the public who have communicable illnesses, but they do not always work.
“Sometimes, you do have to go hands-on [into a situation] and don’t have the option to put on masks and gloves,” Mr. Sauvé said in an interview.
Also, he said that police don’t always know who they are dealing with, and whether they have been exposed to the virus.
“We may stand a little further away when dealing with the public.”
The police federation, which represents 20,000 RCMP members, last week outlined concerns about front-line officers lacking access to nitrile gloves, approved face masks and even disinfectant, as well as dealing with family issues, and inconsistent messaging and support from management.
On Wednesday, Mr. Sauve said a new concern is the possible impact on officers of dealing with this difficult assignment for the foreseeable future.
RCMP headquarters did not respond to a request for comment.
In a statement this week, Assistant Commissioner Dwayne McDonald, acting commanding officer of the RCMP in B.C., said the national division’s emergency operations centre is overseeing the co-ordination of police resources at a provincial and national level, with monitoring of essential levels of staff and equipment, and providing updates on safety and prevention measures to employees.
In Edmonton, the police are responding to calls, but asking about the health of those calling, whether they have been around those who are ill and whether they have recently returned from abroad.
On the scene, officers will practice social distancing and wear protective gear if necessary. “We will be there when you need us,” Police Chief Dale McFee of the Edmonton Police Service said in a video posted to the department’s web site.
Cheryl Voordenhout of the department’s communications office said in an e-mail that no officers have tested positive for COVID-19, but some staff are isolating.
“We will maintain staffing levels to the fullest extent possible, but as this is an evolving situation, we will deal with staffing-level challenges when and if they arise,” she wrote.