At Hennepin Healthcare, paramedics are being told to shave their beards and mustaches so masks will properly seal around their mouths.

Firefighters on medical calls are limiting how many enter an enclosed space at once.

And police detectives are more often interviewing suspects and witnesses in the field, rather than bringing them back to the station.

Across the Twin Cities metro, first responders without the luxury of social distancing are recalibrating their response to reduce their exposure to COVID-19. As the virus spreads, and panic follows, emergency dispatchers are seeing a spike in call volumes. On Tuesday, a coalition of Minneapolis and Hennepin County responders called on residents to avoid dialing 911 if they are experiencing flu symptoms.

“The goal is to reserve 911 for true emergencies,” Hennepin Healthcare EMS Chief Marty Scheerer said at a news conference. “We will conserve valuable 911 resources for you in the community as they are truly needed.

“Many, if not most of us, will contract the virus,” he said, and in most cases paramedics will only be able to advise people to stay home. The goal for now is to “spread out the exposure timeline,” so the community doesn’t become exposed all at once and overload emergency resources.

“We have prepared for the worst, but we’re hoping for the best,” Scheerer said. “We’ve been planning for events like this for a long time, and we’re currently adjusting our plans as we need to.”

Among the biggest concerns for police are what to do if an officer or a group of officers on a single shift get sick, which could reduce the number of personnel available to respond to emergencies.

Last week, Minneapolis police sent out a department directive outlining a series of guidelines and procedures aimed at limiting officers’ exposure. Any officer who is likely to come into contact with a coronavirus case was issued gloves and reusable masks, which they must carry with them while responding to calls. Dispatchers are being trained to screen people who call 911, asking them whether anyone at the location has shown symptoms of the virus.

If officers from a particular shift become ill, the department will backfill their positions with detectives and members of specialized units like the Community Engagement Team. A police spokesman said the department also has mutual aid agreements with other local law enforcement agencies to help fill service gaps.

“There will be some changes in our delivery mode,” said spokesman John Elder, adding that certain less serious calls may be handled by phone for the time being. “Whereas law enforcement, at times, does not allow for social distancing, we will utilize that model as much as possible to limit exposure to our staff as well as persons officers come in contact with.”

Some supervisors with small children are being allowed to work from home, on a case-by-case basis.

Mark Lakosky, president of the Minneapolis firefighters union, said his members are most concerned about the financial risks of getting sick. Lakosky said the department’s contract with the city guarantees firefighters will receive workers’ compensation if they are infected. Legislators are also pushing a bill that would classify a pandemic virus as an “occupational disease” eligible for workers’ compensation. For now, he’s working on getting that message to firefighters.

Lakosky said no firefighters have been diagnosed as of yet, but he worries the virus could spread quickly in the close quarters of a firehouse. Firefighters are taking precautions, including wearing gloves and masks and going through a decontamination process after responding to calls with potential exposure. “When in doubt, treat every patient as if they’re infected,” he said.

But there are also concerns about resources running out. The department has asked firefighters to limit their use of N95 respirator masks as a precaution, Lakosky said. “I wish we were able to use N95s full time on everything,” he said. “But I think they’re short all over.”

Fire Chief John Fruetel said they have a cache of masks, but they are being cognizant of the “limited potential” for masks being replaced.

In St. Paul, police patrol officers are being equipped with gloves and hand sanitizer, while detectives have also been told to keep an extra uniform in their office, should they be needed to replace 911 responders who fall sick.

Dan Schoen, a former state senator who works as a police officer in Cottage Grove, said the constant threat of exposure has forced local agencies to rethink their tactics.

He said people should expect longer response times for lower-priority emergencies and that concerns about not trying to squeeze more people into already overcrowded jails may affect how certain calls are handled.

“We may deal with somebody and ask the jail, ‘Is this somebody we should be bringing in right now?’ and they may say, ‘No,’ ” he said, while adding that it doesn’t mean that police will stop making arrests, particularly for serious crimes and felonies. “There are situations where maybe we would have taken somebody to jail last week, but we’re not this week.”

The considerations come as officials here, as elsewhere, move to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey on Monday declared a local state of emergency, ordering all restaurants and bars to cease dine-in service, signaling a dramatic change of daily life in the state’s largest city.

Frey also sent a letter to Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson urging him to temporarily halt evictions until the crisis passes. Last week, the city announced that it would temporarily stop turning off people’s water for lack of payment, as part of an effort to encourage people to wash their hands and limit the virus’ spread.

Frey’s announcement was followed by one from Gov. Tim Walz, who went a step further, ordering all bars and restaurants across the state to close temporarily, a ban that also extended to all health clubs, theaters, museums, food courts, coffeehouses and other places of “public accommodation and amusement.”

Other places have announced similarly stringent measures. Bay Area officials on Monday issued a sweeping mandate requiring residents of seven northern California counties to stay at home and only go outside for food, medicine and outings that are absolutely essential.

 

Staff writer Liz Sawyer and the Associated Press contributed to this report.