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LI's first responders grapple with coronavirus at work and at home

Suffolk County Deputy Sheriff Capt. John Rung updates Newsday on current jail practices during the pandemic as one correction officer is recovering from a positive diagnosis of COVID-19.

Long Island’s first responders are always aware they could be injured or even killed on the job. Now, battling on the front lines of a global pandemic, they worry about contracting the potentially deadly coronavirus and bringing it into their home and to their families. 

“Our work space, if you can call it that, is the back of the ambulance, which is only 12 by six feet,” said Kris Kalender, a police medic. “So we are entrapped in that box with these patients, and mentally it drains on you. It drains and you never stop thinking about, ‘OK, I got my gown on, I got my mask on, I got my gloves on, but did something sneak through?”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo at his daily briefing Sunday spoke of the plight of police officers and other front-line workers. 

"You think these police officers are not afraid to leave their house?" Cuomo said. "You think these nurses are not afraid to go into the hospital? They're afraid. But, something is more important than their fear, which is their passion, their commitment, for public service, and helping others."

Across Long Island, police officers, firefighters, EMTs and correction officers are still answering 911 calls, transporting prisoners and responding to other emergencies even as coronavirus has emptied many public places amid directives to stay home to avoid spreading the virus. 

So first responders are struggling with the dilemma: How do I protect my health and my family while still doing my job?

James McDermott, president of the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association, which represents the department's approximately 2,500 rank-and-file officers, said cops can't social distance easily.

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"Everyone else in the county, the state, the country, the world, is told to hole themselves up in their houses," he said. "We can’t help but be exposed to the public. People are still committing crimes, still being arrested, still need medical attention.”

Dozens of Long Island police officers, correction officers, police medics and firefighters have already tested positive for the coronavirus, officials said, despite the efforts Nassau and Suffolk agencies are taking to protect their staffs and the public. First responders on Long Island have been provided gloves, masks and other personal protective equipment, according to police officials. 

Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said his officers continue to show up for work -- the department has not experienced a surge in sick day calls. The best way to protect first responders, Ryder said, is for the public to shelter at home and practice social distancing. 

“We need to protect those who are protecting the rest of us,” Ryder said. “My first responders don’t get a break; they can’t work at home. They have to come to work.”

Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said even 911 operators, who typically have no personal contact with the public during their shifts, have been issued masks and other personal protective equipment. The county’s call center, she added, receives regular deep cleanings.  

“If the 911 call center goes down, we would be in a very bad spot,” Hart said. 

In New York City, the NYPD has had to contend with thousands of sickout calls, more than 440 have tested positive for the virus and three members have died of the virus.

Chief Gregory Miglino of the South Country Ambulance Co. in Bellport said his agency stocked up on supplies earlier this year and was prepared when the coronavirus crisis hit Long Island, but he's worried about the future. So are the heads of other EMS units, he said.

"We should be OK the next three weeks, but we are going to need to resupply after that," Miglino said, adding his unit created a room where people can disrobe after a shift and throw their clothes in a washing machine. 

Kalender, the president of the Garden City-based Civil Service Employees Association Local 830 police medic unit, said the number of coronavirus-related calls his members are responding to has surged in the past week -- one day it was 33% of all calls, the next day it was 41%.

Kalendar said that many medics have began taking off their uniforms just outside their homes to avoid potentially bringing the virus to their families. Medics, even pre-coronavirus, have long been known to almost immediately jump in the shower after working a shift, he said. 

"We are a little more careful," Kalender said. "We get undressed outside the house and put them in a bag before we go in."

Jim Delahunty, a Nassau 911 operator and president of the police communications unit, Civil Service Employees Association Local 830, said the call volume has not increased but the percentage of calls related to coronavirus has increased in recent weeks. "I think we are on the cusp of things getting bad," he said.

"Every call, whether a request for an ambulance or something criminal going on, we have to ask if people are sick or if they have symptoms," he said. "We need to ask this so the officers going out on calls can take the necessary precautions."

When Delahunty gets off work, he said, the first thing he does is wipe down his car -- steering wheel, dash, anything he touches. When he gets home, he takes off his clothes and takes a shower.

Lloyd Harbor Police Chief Thomas Krumpter said his tiny police department has one officer out sick with “symptoms that are consistent with coronavirus.”  The officer had not been tested.

“We’ve put in a number precautions in order to mitigate the risk to our officers,” Krumpter said. “We are cleaning regularly. All the officers will clean the building and the cars at the end of their shift.”

Krumpter, who said he and the only other supervisor in the 11-member department are working opposite shifts to try to avoid both of them getting sick, said the department currently has an “adequate supply” of personal protective equipment. Lloyd Harbor Lt. Jared Morrissey said every officer has an N95 mask and gloves.

“We are doing things a little bit differently. We are exercising a little bit more discretion and avoiding those contacts that we can avoid," Krumpter said.

The coronavirus pandemic presents especially difficult challenges for correction officers at Nassau and Suffolk jails, officials and public health experts said, because staff and inmates share cramped spaces for long periods of time. Social distancing can be difficult. 

Capt. John Rung of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, which operates jails in Riverhead and Yaphank, said it is sometimes necessary for correction officers to get physically close to an inmate, but not always.  He encourages his staff to think about how to do their jobs.

“You don't have to be right up next to somebody if you're talking to them,” Rung said. “You know, there are times when you can change how you're doing things when you're dealing with a person.”

First responders have had to make adjustments.

Sgt. Kelly Lynch, commander of the Suffolk Police Domestic Violence and Elder Abuse Unit, said her team is checking in with domestic violence survivors by phone and email, although officers continue to respond in person to 911 calls.

Keith Scott, the director of education for the Safe Center, which provides support services to domestic violence victims in Nassau County, said the agency is offering counseling and other services remotely.

 “We’ve had challenges and we’ve had to make difficult decisions,” Lynch said. “But we are here and the advocates are still here."


 

We want to hear from Long Island health care workers and first responders.

Tell us what you’re seeing and how you’re coping with the coronavirus in your work and your lives by emailing coronavirus@newsday.com. You may be contacted by a reporter.

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