Social distancing isn't exactly a new concept for Duluth police officer Russ Bradley.

While most of us are just now learning to keep 6 feet away from one another, that's a pretty basic principle in law enforcement training.

"In a way, for officer safety, we've always kept something that we call a reactionary gap with individuals," Bradley said. "Just making sure that if they were to do something, we have time for our brains to process the potential threat. We're always kind of on alert when we are in a situation dealing with people."

But that doesn't mean police work continues as normal while the nation seeks to slow the spread of COVID-19. In the Northland, cops, firefighters and paramedics are taking added precautions and adjusting some of their fundamental operations to avoid transmission of the virus.

Police are now handling some calls remotely. Dispatchers are being asked to gather additional information on patients so that first responders determine whether they should use masks and other personal protective equipment. Deep cleaning practices are being utilized multiple times a day on emergency vehicles, equipment and buildings.

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Duluth Police Department patrol officer Sara Schutte uses a disinfectant wipe Thursday to clean the door handle on her squad car. Schutte cleans the surfaces of her vehicle several times during her shift.   (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Duluth Police Department patrol officer Sara Schutte uses a disinfectant wipe Thursday to clean the door handle on her squad car. Schutte cleans the surfaces of her vehicle several times during her shift. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

"St. Louis County has confirmed 13 positive cases, which doesn't seem like a very big number," Dave Johnson, operations manager for Mayo Clinic Ambulance in Duluth, said Friday.

"But from our team members' perspective, there's a multitude more that we treat like they are positive, so that we can protect them and protect ourselves and protect the first responders that we are working with, along with the hospital staff once we transport them. I would say just about every third call is treated like a potentially positive COVID-19 patient."

Police reorganize operations

Up until a few weeks ago, the Duluth Police Department included a patrol division and an investigations and administrative division.

Now, all 156 sworn members make up the largest patrol operation in the force's history — a restructuring implemented by the department's command staff as a way to stagger shifts and prevent an outbreak from leaving a significant number of officers unable to work.

That means officers are now working five days on and then getting 15 consecutive days off.

"We wanted people who are working the street to have a period of, essentially, self-quarantine after their five days of work," Police Chief Mike Tusken said. "We believe the greatest threat to the wellbeing of our organization is having community spread from within the police department."

The 15-day period mirrors the timeframe in which health officials say symptoms of COVID-19 generally emerge for people who have been exposed to the virus.

The consequences of a viral outbreak can be seen in the New York Police Department, where seven officers had died and more than 1,300 other uniformed members had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Friday. One out of every six officers was either out sick or in quarantine, the New York Times reported.

Patrol officer Sara Schutte shows cleaning supplies available to clean their patrol cars with. She prefers the CaviWipes because that is the same product that is used in hospitals and clinics to sanitize surfaces.   (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Patrol officer Sara Schutte shows cleaning supplies available to clean their patrol cars with. She prefers the CaviWipes because that is the same product that is used in hospitals and clinics to sanitize surfaces. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

In addition to staggering shifts, Duluth police officers are wiping down surfaces on their squad cars at the beginning and end of every shift and have been supplied with N95 masks, gloves and other protective equipment that they can use at their discretion. Roll call briefings have been moved from a cramped space into the much-larger training room at the Public Safety Building, which remains closed to the public.

Officers have been forced to cease many of their proactive, face-to-face community policing efforts and are now handling many routine reports through phone calls or online forms. They will still physically respond to in-progress calls and any that pose a risk to the public, Tusken said. Investigators are prioritizing crimes against other people, but many property crime cases may be put on hold.

"It's very important for us to deliver a quality product and to be engaged with the community to the extent we can in these difficult times," Tusken said. "But it does look different than it did just a couple of weeks ago as we have to respect all these guidelines that we're getting from (health officials)."

Unique challenges in pandemic

Duluth Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj said he has not made any changes to scheduling, but firefighters are no longer able to pick up extra shifts at stations other than the one to which they are assigned.

Crews are constantly bleaching floors and cleaning vehicles and other equipment. The fire department is getting thermometers to check for fever, but many members are already self-monitoring, the chief said.

Firefighters, whose workload includes far more medical calls than actual fires, also have masks and other protective equipment available to them. Krizaj, who doubles as the city's emergency manager, said the department has long had that equipment — always preparing for the possibility of a pandemic, as unlikely as it at seemed even a month or two ago.

"We've never had anything this bad word that we've actually had to react to," he said. "But a lot of our masks and personal protective equipment was brought in by former Chief (John) Strongitharm as part of pandemic planning. We've just had it. We didn't run out and get it in January or anything."

Carmine Langlois, fire equipment operator, hoses down a new fire engine at the Duluth Fire Department in 2017. (File / News Tribune)
Carmine Langlois, fire equipment operator, hoses down a new fire engine at the Duluth Fire Department in 2017. (File / News Tribune)

Preparing for a pandemic is different than other emergency scenarios that agencies routinely simulate, such as a tornado, flood or mass shooting response, Krizaj said. While arenas like the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center might normally be utilized for shelter or hospital purposes, social distancing guidelines require individual rooms with a degree of separation.

The St. Louis County Emergency Operations Center recently received 250 cots from the Minnesota National Guard, at Krizaj's request. He said he has another 30 cots set aside in the event that members of the fire department need to isolate away from family members.

Krizaj said agencies take an "all-hazards" approach in emergency planning. For example, when emergency crews responded to Superior's Husky Energy refinery explosion and fire in 2018, they may not have known the ins-and-outs of the hydrogen flouride risk, but did bring plenty of training in how to address any sort of chemical leak.

"We plan for things a little bit more generally, and then we can narrow the focus on a specific event," Krizaj said. "I think that's a really productive way to do it."

Calm before the storm?

So far, first responders say they're seeing a lull in activity in the Northland. Most seem to be following Gov. Tim Walz's order to stay home.

Bradly isn't responding to as many crashes or making routine traffic stops, except in cases that endanger public safety. He said he hasn't had to break up large gatherings or issue citations to people flagrantly violating the governor's directive.

The idea is to take an educational approach and convince people to engage in safe activities. Bradley said many responses are simply to check on people who are out in public, likely standing out because the streets are so empty.

"I've had some discussions with some homeless people who have never even heard of COVID-19 or coronavirus," he said. "They don't even know what it is. So we've just got to say, 'OK, well, we've got to stay back 6 feet,' and just kind of remind them of what's going on."

A Mayo Clinic Ambulance displays it's emergency lights Friday at the ambulance service headquarters in West Duluth.  (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
A Mayo Clinic Ambulance displays it's emergency lights Friday at the ambulance service headquarters in West Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

But officials don't expect everything to remain so calm. An eventual surge in COVID-19 cases is likely to keep first responders very busy.

Dr. Anuradha Luke, medical director for the Mayo Clinic Ambulance Service, said she's "cautiously optimistic" that paramedics won't experience any shortage of masks or other protective equipment. Mayo, formerly Gold Cross, has about 65 personnel in the Twin Ports region.

Dispatchers have been gathering additional information on patients — such as any symptoms they are experiencing and whether they have traveled recently — to help determine when equipment should be used by first responders. Firefighters and paramedics also are working together to limit the number of personnel who need to enter residences and physically interact with patients.

"People may get asked some extra questions, but that doesn't delay an ambulance coming to them, and it doesn't affect whether an ambulance comes to them," Luke said. "Our crews will take slightly more time to put on their personal protective equipment, and that is an attempt to protect the patients, their family, the community and themselves. I'm sure it's anxiety-provoking for the public to see that, but it's meant to maximize public safety."

Dr. Anuradha Luke, Mayo Clinic Ambulance Service medical director
Dr. Anuradha Luke, Mayo Clinic Ambulance Service medical director