Long Island's police departments are gearing up in case its officers come into contact with suspected Ebola victims.
The Nassau, Suffolk and New York City forces have beefed up training and have reminded officers to don protective equipment -- designed to be worn after a chemical-weapons attack -- if they're dispatched to deal with an Ebola patient.
In a notice to patrol officers Oct. 10, Nassau police said its supply of weapons of mass destruction equipment -- Tychem biohazard suits, protection masks and gloves -- should be worn if an officer interacts with someone they've been told may be infected with Ebola. Nassau has also distributed a list of questions to its Communications Bureau, which answers 911 calls, to screen potential Ebola patients.
Nassau also has advised officers on Ebola symptoms and procedures for dealing with anyone who is suspected of having the deadly virus, including keeping the sick person at least 6 feet away from others and providing a face mask to "prevent possible exposure to bodily fluids."
"Our main concern right now is to make sure our members are protected and informed," Nassau police Chief of Department Steven Skrynecki said, adding the department is coordinating closely with local and state health officials, as well as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We are taking a proactive stance on this."
Ebola, a virus that is transmitted only through bodily fluids, has killed thousands in West Africa, but it wasn't until last month that the first case in the United States was confirmed in a visitor from Liberia. Two nurses who cared for that Ebola patient in Dallas -- who eventually died -- contracted the disease and are undergoing treatment.
There have not been any documented Ebola cases on Long Island or New York City. Hospitals on Long Island and in the city the past couple of weeks have been training staffers, police, firefighters and other first responders on procedures and precautions to use if an Ebola patient is brought in. And U.S. health care officials have cautioned that the virus is highly unlikely to reach epidemic levels in the United States because of this country's extensive public-health infrastructure.
That includes police response. Both Nassau and Suffolk police, officials said, already have procedures for dealing with communicable diseases -- key training they are building on to educate officers on Ebola.
Suffolk Chief Kevin Fallon, a spokesman, said his department also issued a memo to its patrol force warning officers to be "extremely vigilant" when coming into contact with bodily fluids. Suffolk officers receive annual training on preventing disease transmission. Both Suffolk and Nassau supply officers with biohazard suits. Fallon said the department replenishes its supplies on an ongoing basis.
"All the Suffolk County Police Department patrol cars are equipped with personal protective equipment to protect our officers from exposure," he said.
NYPD Commissioner William Bratton met last week with senior department officials about Ebola, he said, "to continue building out on what we are learning." The meeting was similar to one held recently by city agencies at the Office of Emergency Management, Bratton said.
He noted that the NYPD had a significant number of Hazmat suits and would conduct an inventory to see what was on hand. Bratton acknowledged emergency workers are being told to be careful about using language over their radios when talking about flu-like conditions and to not use inappropriate words -- such as Ebola -- that could inflame the situation.
'Quick and urgent' plan
James Carver, president of the Nassau Police Benevolent Association, said the department needs to do more -- for example, sending Ebola information electronically to every patrol car.
"If any matter deserves to have a quick and urgent plan prepared, this is it," Carver said. He questioned whether the WMD suits and other supplies provide adequate protection to prevent Ebola transmission.
"Our roles as first responders would prohibit us from staying 6 feet away," Carver said, referring to the instructions officers received. "To stay 6 feet away from somebody in an ambulance -- that's impossible."
Skrynecki, the Nassau chief, said the department has "absolutely" confirmed with Nassau University Medical Center officials that the WMD suits, which are issued to every officer, provide adequate protection against Ebola transmission.
"They assured us they would be satisfactory in handling someone who has the Ebola virus," Skrynecki said.
Skrynecki said the 911 call screening gives officers and ambulance medical technicians warning when they might be dealing with an Ebola patient. If someone was suspected of having Ebola, officers would be required to contact a supervisor and the department's Emergency Services Unit.
Once the patient was transported to the hospital, the officers' protective gear would be destroyed and they would be decontaminated. Any officer who had contact with an Ebola patient would be "tracked" for the next 21 days, Skrynecki said.
"We're trying to stay ahead of this," he said. "And ensure the safety of our officers and the public."
With Anthony M. DeStefano