Only call 911 if virus symptoms are acute, officials advise

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A woman wearing a headset types at a desk with three monitors.
Telecommunicator Amber Guettler logs in information from a caller at the Ramsey County Emergency Communications Center in St. Paul. Hennepin County first responders are asking people to avoid calling 911 if they feel like they have the coronavirus.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Hennepin County first responders are asking people to avoid calling 911 if they feel like they have the coronavirus. The chief of Hennepin county emergency services, Marty Scheerer said most people who contract the virus — those who are normally healthy — will not need to be hospitalized and can treat themselves at home.

"If we do respond to you, we may just evaluate you and tell you to stay home,” he said. “The goal is to reserve 911 for true emergencies. We will conserve valuable 911 resources for you and the community as they are truly needed."

However, Scheerer said people who are experiencing shortness of breath, decreased consciousness or who have coronavirus symptoms that don’t go away after one week, should call for help.

Scheerer also said people should expect to see emergency responders wearing protective gear like goggles, masks and gowns.

“This is all to protect you and our first responders from exposing each other to the virus,” said Scheerer, who added that departments have stockpiled “many thousands” of N95 masks and other personal protective gear.

Minneapolis police officials say officers have recently responded to more medical calls than usual. Department spokesperson John Elder said he didn’t have exact numbers, but officers have noticed the trend.

“In speaking to officers that worked the overnight shift last night, they’re saying that medical calls were a thing of commonality,” Elder said. “Which normally we don’t get a lot of on the overnights.”

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arrodondo said the department has instituted policies to protect officers from transmission of the virus. That includes keeping workspaces clean and allowing some personnel to work remotely.

But ultimately, he said, police work involves face-to-face contact.

“You’re hearing the words, ‘social distancing’ — we are one of the few professions that works contrary to [that],” Arradondo said. “We engage with our communities. We certainly need to be there to help them. And we want to continue to do that.

“But we want to do so in a way that limits the exposure and risk to our men and women, first responders and as well as to keep our communities safe.”

Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson said plans are in place to maintain staffing in case numbers of officers become infected with the coronavirus. He said police departments have agreements that will allow them to move officers between cities.

"If one agency gets sick, we're going to shuffle more resources,” he said. “The lakes area — they have an agreement. The northwest suburbs have an agreement. We're as prepared as we can be."

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