La PORTE — Despite the unprecedented challenge the pandemic has presented, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has brought the best out of La Porte County’s first responders, according to county leaders.

On Wednesday, several county department heads updated the La Porte County Board of Commissioners on how they and their teams have responded to the coronavirus outbreak, which has gripped the entire world over the past several months. The officials spoke during the commissioner’s regularly scheduled meeting this week, where the limited audience sat at least 6 feet away from one another to limit the possible spread of the virus.

Several county officials attended the gathering remotely via teleconferencing software. In addition to the usual live broadcast of the meeting through the Access La Porte County TV and website, the county also livestreamed the proceedings on Facebook, with as many as 50 people viewing from home.

Wednesday’s meeting was the first since the board of commissioners created a countywide task force to address the global COVID-19 crisis, which, as of Thursday, was confirmed to have been contracted by 56 Indiana residents, including a 55-year-old La Porte man.

Several county departments – including the sheriff’s department, emergency medical services, emergency management, E-911 and building maintenance – have worked together even before the taskforce’s March 12 formation to acquire equipment and develop new procedures in response to the pandemic.

EMS, in particular, has been a “step ahead” in dealing with the coronavirus threat, beginning work on protocols to address the issue around two months ago, said Assistant Administrator Eric Fenstermaker.

The ambulance service has worked with the EMA and maintenance department to get personal protective gear for its paramedics, technicians and other staff members. The EMS educator coordinator has instructed the crew on the proper protocols for using the equipment and how to protect themselves from contracting the virus, as well.

“If our guys get exposed, we’re in a lot of trouble,” he said. “We want to make sure we have the right stuff to keep them safe.”

The department currently has enough gear to last several months, though it is working with Emergency Management Director Larry Butcher to acquire more from the state, Fenstermaker said.

The department has offered some protective gear and instruction to local fire departments as well, Fenstermaker said.

Facilities Director Larry Levendowski has also supplied EMS with cleaning supplies for its crews to use to sanitize its ambulance fleet, to make sure that staff is not picking up anything from the vehicles and medical tools, the administrator said.

Finally, the service has worked with area hospitals to develop special procedures on how to transport suspected COVID-19 patients for treatment, Fenstermaker said.

La Porte County E-911 has also implemented new policies in response to the public health crisis, said Director Steve Alt.

Most notably, the emergency dispatchers have begun screening callers complaining of difficulty breathing, chest pain, headache or general sickness for COVID-19, asking them a series of questions developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alt said. The information will give first responders warning about the caller’s condition, ensuring they come prepared with proper protective equipment if needed.

The director added that these questions would not delay dispatch of an ambulance, fire or other emergency personnel, he said.

The sheriff’s department, meanwhile, has modified its jail operations to prevent the spread of the virus through the county’s inmate population, said Sheriff John Boyd. In addition to working with the courts to limit the movement of prisoners in and out of the facility, the department has suspended its work release program until further notice, Boyd said.

With K-12 classes currently suspended in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the department has also reassigned its school resource officers to other functions, the sheriff noted.

One challenge his staff are currently dealing with is a shortage of hand sanitizer, due to the massive demand of the product since the coronavirus’ spread across the U.S. Though the department’s jail and office staff can easily wash their hands frequently throughout the day, road deputies lack convenient access to a sink, Boyd said.

Unfortunately, the hand sanitizer shortage will not be solved overnight, as the maintenance department is currently on a one-month-long waiting list for new supplies, Levendowski said. The department still has enough cleaning supplies to last several months, however, the facilities director said. Crews are routinely cleaning and disinfecting each of the county’s facilities and courthouses to prevent transmission within the buildings, he added.

“Throughout the day, we’re hitting every doorknob, every door, throughout every building – every place where someone would actually put a hand,” Levendowski said.

EMA Director Butcher said that additional protective gear and supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile would also be on its way to the county soon, with federal officials releasing the materials for distribution in the coming days.

In addition to supplying masks and other equipment to county first responders, the official is hoping to give some gear to local homeless shelters to prevent the spread of the virus there, he said.

One thing all the officials touched on was the strong collaboration between their offices, as well as the county health department and other agencies, in response to the ongoing crisis, they said.

“It’s a great team,” Boyd said. “In times like this, we come together. It really helps us when we work as a team.”

La Porte County Commission President Sheila Matias also praised their efforts and encouraged the community at large to show a similar solidary in response to the challenge that lies ahead.

“This is a time when we need each other the most,” she said. “When times are tough, we as Americans, and certainly we as Hoosiers and residents of La Porte County, know it’s sometimes the little things that count the most. We need to tap into that community spirit. Together, we can do this.”

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