Officials share concerns about COVID-19 patients

Police Chief, Fire Chief say they should be made aware where confirmed COVID-19 patients are located



Pullman Fire Chief Mike Heston said first responders need to know where COVID-19 patients are located so responders can protect themselves from potential exposure.

ANGELICA RELENTE, Evergreen editor-in-chief

As the health department in Whitman County continues to provide updates on confirmed COVID-19 cases, Pullman officials questioned its reasoning behind not releasing any identifying information during the online city council meeting Tuesday night.

Councilmember Brandon Chapman said he knows of other counties that are releasing zip codes to identify COVID-19 patients. Chapman asked Troy Henderson, director of Whitman County Health Department, why Whitman County is handling identifying information differently. 

Henderson said counties who are providing zip code information are larger counties. Whitman County, in particular, has small towns in which privacy concerns might arise if information like that were publicized. 

“If you release data on a community of 70 or 80 folks,” he said, “people in the community will know who it is that was sick, and will either rightfully or wrongfully put two plus two together.”

Pullman Fire Chief Mike Heston said as first responders, they need to know where these patients are located so they could flag that information and protect themselves from potential exposure.

“I think it’s critical to our operations that we know where these people are,” Heston said. “I think it’s well within our right to get that.”

Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins said he concurs with Heston’s statement and thinks it is a matter of safety and health for their staff to have that information. 

“For first responders responding on a call,” Henderson said, “they should respond to calls as if the folks that they’re dealing with on the call have COVID-19 because they very well might be whether or not they’ve tested positive or not.”

Henderson said community members should not rely on whether or not there have been positive cases in their town to determine if the virus is active in where they are living.

“We’ve done so little testing that the prudent measure for folks in communities is to go about their daily life as if it is in their community because it probably is,” he said.

The health department received about 100 test kits and a small shipment of protective gear, which they already shared with the local hospitals and first responders, Henderson said.

Whitman County’s first confirmed case occurred on March 22

Councilmember Dan Records asked if Henderson anticipates the possibility of getting quicker testing kits for a faster turnaround for results.

Henderson said he is hopeful that the county will receive some, but they would have to wait and see.

“I’m not the only local … who has been frustrated with the lack of testing,” he said. “In fact, that’s 100 percent across the board.”

Heston said the fire station has been closed off to the public. Ride-alongs and CPR classes are postponed for the meantime as well. The fire department is following CDC’s suggested cleaning procedures on a day-to-day basis, he said. This includes cleaning the station, vehicles and equipment they use. 

Pullman Fire staff will use goggles and masks at all times when responding to a medical call, Heston said. When they have to transport patients during an emergency response, family members are prohibited from riding in the back of the ambulance to limit the number of people gathered together.

Jenkins said Pullman Police has seven staff members working from home and are looking to increase that number to limit contact between staff members. They also suspended in-person business services in the police station.

There is bullet-resistant glass in place at the front counter of the police station to shield the staff from the public, he said. Staff members are instructed to use gloves when handling any documents or mail coming from the public.

Jenkins said their staff is making an effort to avoid unnecessary contact or risk to exposure.

“If we can handle something over the telephone, we will do that,” he said. “If someone insists on the presence of an officer or it’s a type of call that we do need an officer there, obviously we will go.”