Since March, human-to-human transmission of a never-before-seen virus has been occurring in Mexico. A combination of human, bird and pig viral factors, this novel virus has moved into the U.S. and across the world. We now face a level-5 World Health Organization warning of pandemic swine flu infection.
As law enforcement officers, we will be on the front lines of this event. As I write this article, the outbreak is still evolving. Should this flu become widespread in our communities, we will be in constant contact with the public, often with those who may be sick. In heightened risk situations, officers must take steps to protect themselves. And if you’re a supervisor or training officer, you need to share the following information with your patrol officers.
To start, change your clothes and take a shower before going home if you’ve been exposed to obvious illness. Don’t wear your street shoes or boots at home.
An effective disinfectant solution can be made by adding one-quarter cup of household bleach to 1 gallon of cold water. This 5% bleach/water solution kills bacteria and virus. You can carry this in a plant spray bottle, as we did in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, to treat our boots, auto interiors and other potentially contaminated surfaces. Bleach is a little hard on clothes and uniforms, but it’s cheap and has many uses. In a pinch, it can be used to sanitize drinking water. Remember: Surfaces in the squad car, such as the steering wheel, computer keyboard and door handles, need to be disinfected regularly.
If you have open cuts or sores on your hands and arms, cover them with Band-aids or use “liquid skin” as a barrier.
Respirators & Other Precautions
If you carry disposable gloves and an N-95 or a surgical mask, remember to slow down: Take a moment to observe what you’re dealing with, and don the gloves when and where feasible.
Don’t put a face mask into your pocket because it can contaminate the pocket, your hand and the mask when you retrieve it. Hang the mask from your radio or other object on your belt or vest. Remember : It’s the exterior of the mask that has the contaminants on it.
How effective is a mask against viral transmission? The doc I spoke with said its effectiveness is questionable, but it’s better than nothing. Importantly, work with your paramedics. Offer or place a mask on any person who is coughing or showing signs of illness. The bottom line: The best treatment is prevention.
Knowing that we face this threat, we must focus on the methods and means available to reduce the chance of infection and further spread. Some recommendations for the general public simply don’t work for first responders. These will be decisions you must make. Consider the following information from the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army:
Additional precautions: Those with flu should use separate eating utensils that are washed in hot soapy water after each meal. Don’t share objects like remote controls or pens. Disinfect surfaces that are frequently touched, such as door knobs, remote controls, light switches and toilet handles.
Emergency Room Recommendations
One of our emergency room doctors who works with law enforcement sent me his recommendations. These precautions are predicated on the fact that the transmission of viral particles is primarily via aerosolized droplets from coughing or sneezing and subsequent inhalation of these droplets or contact where these droplets were deposited to one’s mucous membranes (eyes, nose, mouth). In terms of decreasing exposure risk during contacts, consider employing the following three-tiered approach: 1) distance; 2) barrier contact/respiratory filtering; and 3) post-contact decontamination.
Distance: If possible, prior to close contact (six feet or less), officers should take 30 seconds to a minute to observe the suspect or contact for obvious symptoms of coughing, sneezing, wiping at their nose/blowing their nose, congestion, red eyes, etc. Consider doing this as warrant checks are transmitted over the radio or some other moment of downtime.
If such symptoms are observed, officers should don face masks and gloves prior to close contact. If the contact becomes distressed by the presence of the mask, tell them, “I see that you’re coughing (or sneezing). This mask is just a precaution.” This is often enough to set someone at ease.
When possible and safe, have suspects and contacts speak with officers outdoors, rather than in close confines.
Traffic stop contacts should remain in their vehicles if possible. Maintain a safe distance from the car occupants. When passengers aren’t present, consider approaching from the right hand/passenger side, keeping your head outside the car as you speak with the driver.
During the transport of suspects (i.e., detainees), keep the front windows open and avoid using recirculated air. If the person is actively coughing, place an N-95 or surgical mask on them, as authorized by protocol. In severe respiratory cases, consider EMS transport to a hospital for clearance (per your medical screening protocols). Wipe down vehicle interiors after transport with a department-approved cleaning solution.
Barrier contact/respiratory filtering: Preemptively issue face masks and medical gloves (latex-free gloves for latex-allergic staff) in liberal amounts. Ensure staff is properly trained on their proper use and fit.
Make arrangements with local hospitals so officers can receive face masks, gloves and surface decontamination wipes, lotions and sprays upon request.
Post-contact decontamination: Post-contact decontamination is best accomplished through frequent hand washing, which is not always possible for officers in the field. Hospitals use virus-killing topical hand lotions/foams, sprays and wipes. One such product is Super Sani-Cloth, made by PDI. It kills many bacterial and viral antigens, as well as the influenza A family of viruses. Several other effective over-the-counter hand sanitizer/foam/
lotion preparations can be purchased at pharmacies. Look for products labeled “anti-viral.” Note: They should not be used near the eyes, mouth or nose.
Ensure staff wipe down comm gear before and at the end of every shift.
Although these measures aren’t guaranteed to prevent transmission or infection, they are simple and easy to institute, and employing them will provide some protection and reassurance to your officers and their families.