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Because of coronavirus, prepare to answer more questions next time you call 911

Emergency operators statewide will now screen for possible COVID-19 cases.

BRADENTON, Fla. — To ensure first responders aren’t showing up to help a patient with a potential case of coronavirus, 911 operators statewide are now screening callers with additional questions.

The enhanced screening guidelines were issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week. The protocol is being activated for the first time in Florida—it was considered in 2014 during the Ebola outbreak, said Manatee County Director of Public Safety Jacob Saur.

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Now if a caller says they are feverish, coughing or experiencing breathing problems, 911 operators will ask an additional series of questions.

“The call taker is going to take the 911 call like they normally would,” Saur said. “After they send the call to dispatchers to be sent out to first responders, they will go back and ask the additional questions to the caller to determine if they’re at risk for being around or possibly having COVID-19.”

Callers will be asked about their recent travel within the past 14 days and if there’s a chance they’ve been exposed to someone who is either suspected of having or has tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

If the answer is "yes" to either of those questions, the 911 operator will ask again about symptoms and if the caller is experiencing a fever greater than 100.4 degrees or having trouble breathing.

Calls that meet the criteria will then be coded as “med-alert” which will trigger just one ambulance to arrive and all other responding fire or law enforcement to cancel response, Saur said. Responding medics will have N-95 masks, a respirator, and other protective gear typically worn when responding to an infectious disease situation.

“We’re trying to limit exposure for the first responders,” Saur said.

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The additional questions should not impact response time, according to Saur, because calls are still being dispatched immediately while the enhanced screening is underway. Any new information gleaned is relayed while first responders are en route, giving them time to adjust accordingly before arrival.

Saur says the extra screening is critical given how many people call 911 every day complaining of flu-like symptoms.

“A significant number for our E.M.S. calls daily are sick people with flu-like symptoms and we’re at the height of the flu season now so that compounds this greatly,” he said.

“Answering the additional questions lets us determine if it’s the flu or could this person have been exposed to COVID-19 and do the first responders need to take additional precautions.”

What they don’t want people doing now, Saur says, is calling 911 specifically because they think they’ve come down with coronavirus. Instead, he recommends calling your local county health department or the Florida Department of Health’s 24/7 COVID-19 Call Center first at 1-866-779-6121.

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