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Calif. police departments now fielding 911 calls reporting coughing neighbors

Law enforcement and EMS officials say they must respond to every call in case it turns out to be a legitimate COVID-19 case


Dispatchers have started fielding 911 reports from concerned callers convinced a neighbor’s overly loud sneeze or hacking cough is proof the person has the virus.


Colin Atagi, Christopher Damien and Marie McCain
Palm Springs Desert Sun

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Neighbors calling 911 to report hearing loud coughing next door? It’s happening.

As the number of those with the coronavirus grows locally — Riverside County announced its 15th case on Monday and San Bernardino County confirmed its first case on Sunday — some Coachella Valley police departments say they’ve started fielding 911 reports from concerned callers convinced a neighbor’s overly loud sneeze or hacking cough is proof the person has the virus.

Palm Springs police estimate dispatchers had about five of these calls last week, Sgt. Mike Casavan said.

Cathedral City police Cmdr. Paul Herrera said dispatchers with his department, who also handle 911 calls from the neighboring city of Desert Hot Springs, fielded similar calls.

In many cases, the calls are forwarded to the fire department where paramedics are also dispatched to directly provide any needed medical attention before transporting the person to an area hospital.

That it takes a lab test to determine whether a person is actually positive for the virus doesn’t matter. The concern is real and each call, no matter how infrequent, is a request for help that law enforcement personnel must take seriously and handle professionally.

Authorities say they can’t ignore such calls or discount them as paranoia, hypochondria or fakery. They must respond even when every other public entity adopts “social distancing” in order to reduce possible coronavirus transmission.

California Peace Officers Association President Neil Gallucci, who is also chief of the Carlsbad (Calif.) Police Department, said he hopes to head off worst-case scenarios, such as a first-responder becoming infected by a patient and then spreading the coronavirus to other first-responders.

“If that happens enough, we worry about calls for service,” Gallucci said. ”We’re prepared to deal with issues that come up, but it’s a concern chiefs worry about.”

He said it is an unlikely occurrence, though, as police officers have historically been trained to maintain sanitary conditions. The outbreak has simply made them more vigilant, he said.

Locally, even before the first Coachella Valley coronavirus case was diagnosed, emergency personnel say they anticipated there would be some level of fear and heightened concern among the general public.

Cathedral City dispatchers were instructed to ask callers if they or the person they were calling about had recently returned from a trip abroad, where coronavirus outbreaks were first reported.

But, as the pandemic’s spread continued the questions were changed, Herrera said. They now ask if the person has had any contact with someone who has tested positive.

Ultimately, valley police say each call is treated like any other medical emergency, although, officers are now following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to protect not only the public, but themselves from any possible transmission of the illness.

And they’re having to figure out how to continue to serve and protect when it’s becoming increasingly clear that in order to protect others and themselves they have to reduce actual face-to-face interactions.

“It’s necessary,” Casavan said. “It’s not overwhelming, but we’re taking precautions.”

Palm Springs police officers have added hand sanitizer, gloves and medical face masks to the regular complement of equipment they carry every day. They also carry extra masks and gloves for anyone they might encounter who is exhibiting flu-like symptoms.

Casavan said the Palm Springs police station is cleaned daily and sanitizing wipes are now available throughout the building.

“Safety of officers is priority, they’ve been given a number of updates, we’re following CDC guidelines,” Herrera said, adding that Cathedral City police officers now carry infection control kits.

“These kits contain sanitary towels, N95 flat-fold masks, latex gloves, safety glasses, biohazard bags — basic infectious control items,” he said. “We use the bags to pick up everything from an incident site, everything that comes after contact. We’re not leaving it.

Carol Leveroni, CPOA executive director, said law enforcement personnel across the state are so concerned about controlling the spread of the virus that some agencies have gone as far as issuing travel bans to staff.

In the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department where at least one employee has been under self-quarantine since March 6, sheriff’s deputies have been advised to take precautions at their own discretion, which include carrying hand sanitizer and wearing gloves during arrests, Deputy Robyn Flores, a department spokeswoman, said.

Sheriff Chad Bianco has declined to say what the self-quarantined employee does within the department or where she is stationed, but he did say.the woman is doing well.

“I wouldn’t say (the department is) panicking, but we are preparing (for coronavirus),” he told local leaders during a Coachella Valley Association of Governments meeting on March 9. He added the employee opted to isolate herself after returning from a week’s vacation in Italy, where — as of Monday — more than 1,440 people have been tested positive for the coronavirus.

“If we’re getting calls form people who report they have symptoms, we’ll automatically forward them to the fire department for medical aid,” Riverside County sheriff’s Sgt. Albert Martinez said, adding that deputy safety is a concern.

“We’re following directions from the county and working closely with public health to support them,” Martinez said. “We’re treating everything like we would if it was the flu. We are telling our employees to wash hands, be careful.”

Indio police spokesman Ben Guitron said officers with that department have also been equipped with hand sanitizer and latex gloves.

“We deal with ill people all the time,” he said. “All of the safety measures are already in place ... We’ve warned everyone on our staff to be careful, anyone from the frontline officer to detectives and records staff, every part of our department.”

Indio police Assistant Chief Christopher Shaefer added that his department’s goal is to keep “our workforce healthy in spite of everything going on around them. We have to maintain continuity of service to our community. We’ve provided (officers) with the CDC’s coronavirus quick reference guide — maintain good social distance, that kind of thing.”

On Saturday, Palm Springs City Manager David Ready declared a local emergency that included a decision to limit public access to City Hall, which involves city staff helping members of the public mainly by phone or email.

While, the declaration did not limit public access to the city’s police department, valley law enforcement say they had already anticipated that “social distancing” would become critical to curbing the illnesses spread.

Shaefer said he recognizes that at some point police departments might need to close their lobbies, but Indio isn’t anywhere near that point at the moment.

“We’ve got plans in place if it comes to that level of precaution,” he said. " Until then, the lobby is open and we’re working like normal.”

In Desert Hot Springs, police Chief Jim Henson said his department is bolstering its website in order to serve residents who don’t need direct contact with an officer.

“What we’ve been trying to do is keep the website updated so people know that they can report to us remotely. They can call in when there’s no need to collect physical evidence,” Hanson said. “We’re trying to give residents as many opportunities as possible to report remotely from their homes.”