Coronavirus considerations for law enforcement

With COVID-19 cases being seen in the United States, here’s what cops need to know about the risks and safety considerations


By Lt. Don Lowenthal, RN, BSN, PCCN

Since the beginning of the novel coronavirus epidemic in central China, fear and panic has been pervasive, with daily updates portraying a worsening situation.

There have been over 80,000 cases of novel coronavirus, now referred to as COVID-19, and it has resulted in approximately 2,000 deaths. The outbreak has spread around the world, including South Korea, Italy, Japan and Iran, and even forced the quarantine of passengers on the cruise ship Diamond Princess. The hysteria caused by this outbreak has even had a negative effect on the stock market.

EvergreenHealth Medical Center is seen Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, where a person died of COVID-19, in Kirkland, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
EvergreenHealth Medical Center is seen Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, where a person died of COVID-19, in Kirkland, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

On February 29, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported three cases of COVID-19 in the state of Washington that did not involve travel from an affected country. One of these cases included the first death attributed to COVID-19 in the United States, with a second coronavirus-related death announced on March 1, 2020. Twenty-five Washington State firefighters and two police officers have been quarantined out of an “abundance of caution” after potential exposure to COVID-19.

Much about COVID-19, is still not known. For example, it is not clear if a person infected with COVID-19 who has no symptoms can be contagious. While the World Health Organization (WHO) states the incubation period for COVID-19 is from 1 to 14 days, there is information available that indicates the incubation period is much longer.

While the news of this epidemic has been disastrous, it is important to assess the information obtained from legitimate news sources before taking appropriate action. A report of COVID-19 death rates in China released by the Chinese Center for Disease Control indicates most fatalities involve people over the age of 80. As a comparison, there were approximately 34,200 deaths in the United States during the 2018-2019 that can be attributed to seasonal influenza.

What we know about COVID-19

COVID-19 has been determined to be a respiratory disease that can cause patients to have flu-like symptoms. The best way to stop the spread of respiratory diseases is to keep your hands clean through frequent hand washing. Respiratory diseases, like seasonal influenza and COVID-19 are thought to be spread by infected people who cough and sneeze. In the case of influenza, the virus can live on other surfaces and is spread when people come in contact with the contaminated surfaces.

Quarantine enforcement

In China, the policy of forced mass quarantine was implemented on communities where people suspected having COVID-19 lived. While this policy is unacceptable in the United States, many public health departments will look to law enforcement to carry out quarantine enforcement duties.

Law enforcement agencies across the United States should collaborate with their local public health officials to determine how quarantine enforcement will be carried out, if necessary. These plans will need to include how citizens can be safely transported to hospitals while also ensuring the safety of first responders such as police and fire personnel.

PPE for officers

The best course of action for police officers during this evolving crisis is to maintain vigilant hand hygiene and to use personal protective equipment (PPE) such as nitrile gloves.

The CDC has not indicated (as of March 1, 2020) that police officers should wear protective masks during the course of their duties. Such as in the case of getting sick with a cold or flu, it is important to contact your doctor to determine the best course of action if you experience symptoms.

Legitimate information about the COVID-19 outbreak can be obtained from the CDC, which has been offering frequent updates on its website including guidance specific to law enforcement (see below). Local and state public health departments are also excellent sources of information concerning this epidemic. 

CDC COVID-19 Guidance for Law Enforcement by Ed Praetorian on Scribd


About the author

Lt. Don Lowenthal has been the infection control officer with the Philadelphia Police Department since 2007 and a registered nurse at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia since 2008.

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