AMERICUS, Ga. (WALB) - Some first responders in South Georgia are concerned about a Department of Public Health guideline.
Sumter County Fire & Rescue Captain David Baldwin and Sumter County Emergency Management Agency Director Nigel Poole said they are worried the coronavirus outbreak will quickly deplete the number of first responders who can respond to emergencies.
"We know that we are going to have people exposed and they're going to be quarantined for 14 days," said Capt. Baldwin.
That’s why they requested that the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) allow dispatchers to tell first responders whether someone who lives at the address they are being dispatched to has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or has pending test results.
"Our first responder community is a very finite number," Poole explained. "Once we start losing these, we lose them shifts at a time."
DPH commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey and Georgia Office of EMS and Trauma Director David Newton wrote a letter to EMS agencies, public safety answering points, district health directors, epidemiologists, and district EP staff along with all acute care hospitals in Georgia. The letter is dated Friday, March 27.
The writers acknowledge HIPAA would allow what Poole and Baldwin are asking for.
The US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights wrote in a COVID-19 related document that in some situations, HIPAA allows health care providers to share with first responders identifying information of a person who has been infected with or exposed to COVID-19, without the person’s permission.
It's allowed if first responders are at risk of infection.
However, Dr. Toomey and Newton said in their letter that they have several concerns about doing this.
Among the concerns are lag time between tests being done and results coming back, that the HIPAA "minimum necessary" standard would still apply, and that patients could violate their stay-at-home orders and not be at their actual address.
The concerns also include that there is not widespread testing being done, so it could give a false sense of security to first responders.
"There is nothing right now that gives us any kind of security. We treat every case as though they have the virus," Capt. Baldwin said.
The letter said that dispatchers should screen all callers, not just those calling for medical emergencies, for COVID-19 symptoms.
Capt. Baldwin said dispatchers have other protocols for non-medical calls.
"When a call comes in and there's a kitchen fire, they're not asking, 'has anyone been sick lately? Has anyone had difficulty breathing?' They're trying to tell the homeowner to get out of the house," he explained.
The letter also said first responders should assume all calls they are dispatched to are for someone who has tested positive.
Baldwin said they are treating every case like that, but for some non-medical calls, it's not prudent.
“When my department goes to a structure fire, we’re not wearing N95 masks and surgical gowns and rubber gloves. We’re going to a structure fire,” said Baldwin.
Capt. Baldwin said Sumter County first responders are following DPH and CDC guidelines.
But he and Poole said they hope lawmakers and state leaders at the capitol will reconsider this issue.