Health & Wellness

How first responders can protect themselves

National EMS paramedic Blake Stewart gets help in suiting up during a recent Ebola outbreak exercise. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

EMS, police, and health care workers need to take special precautions

Healthcare personnel working on the front lines to contain and prevent the spread of the new coronavirus that originated in China need to take special, yet common, precautions to keep themselves and others safe. But citizens also have a role to play, according to Curt Harris, director of the Institute for Disaster Management at the University of Georgia.

Below, Harris shares some of his expertise on effective prevention for both medical professionals and every day citizens.

What kinds of precautions do first responders need to take when dealing with a potentially dangerous infection?

“What we’re doing is we’re training clinicians and first responders — whether they’re EMS, police officers or fire departments — to be able to recognize signs and symptoms so that ultimately not only can they protect themselves and their equipment, but also prevent the spread of infectious disease to others who may be in their facility or who may be at their homes.

“Because lot of times you can actually get a disease on your clothing and you could actually take that back home to your kids or spouse and those are things that we want to avoid.

“So, we train responders on how to properly don personal protective equipment as it relates to different types of hazards and different types of infectious diseases. So, not only how to don it, but perhaps more importantly is how do you take it off.

“Because once you’ve treated an infectious person or you’ve been around somebody that has a serious communicable disease or an infectious disease, the proper protocol to take that personal protective equipment off is just as important as the way that you put it on. And so we’re training our first responders how to do that. We’re training clinicians how to do that in health care settings so that ultimately we can all be more protected.”

What should people in health care do to protect themselves and other patients?

“Clinicians need to be especially mindful of what’s going on right now. So, you think about if you’re a doctor and you’re working at a primary care or an urgent care clinic — think about all the people who are sitting out in your waiting room.

“If you have someone come in and they potentially have an infectious disease or a communicable disease, they’re likely sitting around others who do not. One of the points we emphasize is to make sure personal protective equipment like surgical masks are available in the lobby. This affords infectious patients the opportunity to go ahead and put the mask on to prevent spread of disease to others sitting in the waiting room.

“Also, for clinicians it’s important if you identify symptoms of fever, cough and lower respiratory issues consistent with characteristics we’re seeing with coronavirus right now that you try to isolate that individual as soon as humanly possible and then ask travel related questions. Anyone who’s experienced these symptoms with a positive travel history to Wuhan, China, or has been in direct, physical contact with someone from the Wuhan area that has been confirmed, then there is a pretty good chance that they could have it as well.”

 What can regular citizens do to protect themselves from the coronavirus and other infectious diseases?

“It’s simple things like making sure that you’re washing your hands with warm, soapy water and doing so for about 20 seconds. A lot of times when we do wash our hands it’s not long enough. So, washing for about 20 seconds is a good practice. Other public health practices also prevent the spread of disease like sneezing into your elbow and trying to avoid contact with your hands into your eyes, nasal cavities or mouth.

“And it’s also understanding yourself and knowing that if you have symptoms, you do not need to be around other people. You need to seek medical attention immediately and try to isolate yourself from others so that you prevent the spread of disease.”

What should people do if recommendations change about the coronavirus?

“Any time we look at new and emerging infectious diseases, there’s no way for us to know all the science behind it. There are researchers and clinicians all around the world who are currently working day and night to try to understand this virus, know how it’s spread and know what antivirals and potential vaccinations could be out there. So we want to be clear about that: there are no definitive antivirals for this new coronavirus, yet. There are no vaccines for it yet.

“However, the science is changing rapidly. And so just because they may have issued a warning today or they may have issued guidance on how to do things appropriately today that has the potential to change tomorrow as the scientific community continues to learn.”

Has the coronavirus led to any unintended consequences in the public health profession?

“I think there is a bit of irony in the coronavirus outbreak right now, because I think it’s making people more aware of infectious diseases in general. If you look at the United States right now, we are in the middle of a major flu outbreak. The same public health practices like sneezing into your elbow; washing your hands with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds or longer; avoiding touching your eyes, nasal cavities, and mouth; and isolating yourself from others when you are not feeling well or are displaying symptoms are best practices for preventing the spread of the coronavirus and flu.

“So, by having this at the forefront and getting this information out to people we have the chance to lessen the impact of each illness.”