Wisconsin Emergency Medical Services Brace For Coronavirus

911 Dispatchers In Milwaukee County Screen For Symptoms; Madison Fire Department Orders Extra Masks

back of an ambulance
Wisconsin National Guard (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Wisconsin’s firefighters and paramedics often respond to people with contagious illnesses, but some departments are making special preparations for the spread of the new coronavirus. There are more than 100,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide.

Wisconsin has had two confirmed cases so far. One person in Dane County tested positive last month after traveling to China and has since recovered. Health officials announced Monday evening a second person tested positive after traveling in the United States and was isolated at home in Pierce County.

Now, Milwaukee County is taking a proactive approach, directing 911 dispatchers to screen callers for the coronavirus, asking about symptoms and travel history.

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This will help first responders know what they’re getting into on each call, said Dr. Ben Weston, the medical director for the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management.

“(It’s) both for their own safety, so that they can put on the proper equipment before entering an environment that could potentially have coronavirus, but then also really by doing that, protecting the integrity of our system,” Weston said.

Weston said Milwaukee County is learning from Washington state, where some first responders were quarantined after responding to a nursing home where residents were infected with the coronavirus.

An existing mutual aid system could help fill any gaps if quarantine becomes a reality in Wisconsin, Madison Fire Chief Steven Davis said.

“That might bring firefighters from Ashland and Superior down to Wausau, you know, or it might bring Wausau firefighters to the Milwaukee area,” Davis said.

Davis explained other preparations his department is making, like outfitting fire trucks and ambulances with coronavirus response kits. The kits include respirators, or particle-filtering masks that firefighters and paramedics already use when responding to flu cases.

The department has ordered extra masks, but they’re on backorder, Davis said.

Weston emphasized people are still more likely to catch the flu than the coronavirus. He also said there’s a lot that’s still unknown about this outbreak, like how the virus is transmitted, and that makes it hard to plan.

Davis said his department is “making it up as we go” and it will keep working on its coronavirus plan this week.

“If we get it, we’re no use to the community,” Davis said.