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Upper Valley emergency responders, medical professionals plan for a coronavirus outbreak

  • Lise Duncan cleans BINGO cards with anti-bacterial wipes at the Upper Valley Senior Center in Lebanon, N.H., on Monday, March 9, 2020. About a dozen seniors played that day. Duncan volunteers at the center through Hanover Terrace, where she works. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/9/2020 10:18:02 PM
Modified: 3/10/2020 7:07:28 PM

LEBANON — As the Upper Valley continues to see new coronavirus cases, first responders and medical professionals are undergoing extra training, stocking up on face masks and making contingency plans.

Hospitals also are making some changes — the White River Junction VA Medical Center said it will limit access to its facility, with veterans and essential visitors only allowed through the main entrance. Additionally, the VA is recommending that non-essential visitors and people under 18 hold off on visiting a patient.

The hospital is not alone in taking precautions — local emergency responders are also upping their safety measures.

“We have pushed this whole thing out from a prevention perspective,” Hanover Fire Chief Martin McMillan said Monday.

His department has been monitoring the virus since news about the outbreak in December, when Hanover started purchasing extra face masks and gloves.

McMillan said one of the biggest concerns the 23-person department faces is having too many firefighters exposed and quarantined.

“We do not want to get to a place where we’re losing our workforce,” he said.

If a firefighter comes in contact with a person who’s found to have the virus, McMillan said they would have to assess whether the responder was wearing appropriate preventative gear, which includes a face mask, gloves and — if transporting a potential patient — a gown to cover their clothing and goggles. If not, the responder may have to be quarantined.

He said the department has plans if several firefighters have to be quarantined: Hanover would shift schedules, with healthy firefighters doing some overtime work; hire temporary workers; or rely more heavily on mutual aid from surrounding towns’ fire departments.

But that’s something he’s reluctant to consider for now.

“The reason that we’re doing all this training is to prevent that from happening” McMillan said.

Shortly after the Upper Valley’s first case of coronavirus was found last week in a Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center employee, McMillan held a mandatory four-hour training session for firefighters, which went over all the guidelines and procedures for dealing with contagious members of the public. Each member of the department also underwent a “fit test” to ensure that their N95 respirator masks, which block most airborne particles and liquids, fit snugly.

Dispatchers handling 911 calls are also instructed to ask sick callers specific questions about their recent travel history and their symptoms.

First responders then know to don preventative gear when responding.

In Lebanon, Police Chief Richard Mello said his department is following many of the same precautionary measures, by wearing sterile gloves and N95 masks, and making sure to keep patrol cars and station surfaces clean and frequently disinfected.

But Mello has the same concerns as McMillan about losing members of the workforce.

He said the department will evaluate every potential exposure on a case-by-case basis, seeing if a potentially infected officer was wearing proper protective gear. If not, they might be asked to self-quarantine at home and rely on medical professionals’ guidance about returning to work.

“We can maintain effectiveness up to a certain amount of officers,” Mello said, adding that it’s ideal to have four to five officers on patrol at any given time. If too many patrol officers are put in quarantine, then some higher-ranking police — like detectives and even the chief — may have to take up patrol duties.

If they’re still struggling, Lebanon police would have to rely on police services from surrounding towns, though Mello said he doesn’t know how many quarantine cases it would take to get to that point.

On the medical side, hospitals in the Upper Valley are similarly preparing for an influx in cases.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock CEO Joanne Conroy told employees late Sunday to limit all group gatherings at DHMC to 50 people or fewer, beginning Tuesday.

“It is important to understand that we are taking action to support the spirit of social distancing and as an important way to help protect our communities internally and externally,” she wrote.

“Social distancing” is a practice Dartmouth College is enacting as well. On Sunday, the college encouraged community members to stay away from meetings and non-essential mass gatherings, and maintain a six-foot distance from others when possible. Undergraduate exams are still going ahead as planned this week but college officials are looking at “alternative testing locations to better facilitate social distancing options.”

Across the river in Randolph, Gifford Medical Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Josh White said his facility is focusing on monitoring the outbreak, which also includes a case in southwestern Vermont.

“Right now it’s about awareness,” he said, adding that there haven’t been any outbreaks in Gifford’s area. Still, he said staff wear masks and gloves and would only be told to self-quarantine if they don’t wear protective gear when treating a potential COVID-19 patient.

He said the hospital has 25 inpatient beds, three ventilators and “a couple” airborne isolation rooms.

If a patient is found to have the illness but it hasn’t spread to the rest of the community, they might isolate the patient.

“It depends on where we are. Are we trying to control and slow it? Or are we managing something that’s widespread,” he said.

For now, his advice to the Randolph community is clear: don’t panic.

“One of the largest problems we have as health care system is public panic,” he said, adding that too many people going to the hospital for a suspected case of the virus can cause a clog in the system and may result in some emergency patients not getting the immediate care they need.

Instead, otherwise healthy people under the age of 60 and suffering minor symptoms should stay home, while older people with minor symptoms should call their doctor before coming in, he said.

As of Monday, New Hampshire had four cases in which COVID-19 was either confirmed or presumed positive. Eight people, up from 5, were being tested for COVID-19 in New Hampshire, with a total of 225 people being monitored.

In Vermont, which had the one positive case in Bennington County, 223 Vermonters were being monitored, according to state health officials.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

Correction

Martin McMillan is the Hanover fire chief. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported his first name.




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