A Janesville Fire Department battalion chief who also serves on the Rock County Board said the county isn’t doing enough to keep emergency responders safe.
Ron Bomkamp said that until first responders are dispatched, they have no idea the locations of county residents who have tested positive for COVID-19.
It is affecting him personally.
“I can’t believe people don’t want to protect our first responders,” Bomkamp said. “I can’t sleep at night knowing this is going on. We’re not doing everything we can to protect these people, and to me that’s just wrong.”
The health department provides the Rock County 911 Communications Center with the addresses of those who have tested positive for COVID-19. Dispatchers share that information with first responders who are sent to those addresses.
“The problem is we’re not learning about places until we’re going there,” Bomkamp said. “Going to a place at 2 a.m. and finding out right then is the problem. ... It’s going to get missed somehow, and this would just be another step to not miss it and helps with planning. … If it’s a fire at a nursing home of five people or 100 people, it makes a world of difference.
“We’re trying to prep for the worst-case scenario, and without that information, we can’t do that,” he said. “It could easily be missed the way they’re doing it to no fault of the 911 center.”
The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, otherwise known as HIPAA, is in play regarding the sharing of health information.
HIPAA is intended to protect patient privacy and prevent medical information being shared by health care workers and officials. Marie-Noel Sandoval, public health officer for Rock County, has the authority to determine when and to whom COVID-19 information is released.
Bomkamp said the fire department is asking to be told the hundred blocks of homes with residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 and locations of health care facilities with known cases of the virus. The department is asking for the information for internal use only, he said.
Bomkamp said to this point Sandoval has refused to give the fire department this information, saying releasing patient information could cause a threat to the patient.
The Gazette was not able to reach Sandoval for comment Monday.
“Basically, what she’s saying is patient privacy is more important than the first responders’ health,” Bomkamp said. “HIPAA states if there is an immediate threat, the health director has the ability to share information with first responders. That clause is in there for situations exactly like this. That’s the whole reason it’s there.”
Two weeks ago, paramedics responded to an incident at Oak Park Place before it was announced the facility had confirmed cases of COVID-19.
The fire department was not notified of the positive cases, but Bomkamp said he believes the county knew the virus had hit the facility. So far, none of the first responders in that incident have exhibited symptoms or been quarantined, he said.
“It’s pretty much mostly for planning before there is an incident. The health department knew on Friday if not before then that there was a place with COVID-19, and we sent people in there. If we had known before then, we could have had arrangements made to allow for less contamination both going in and coming out,” he said.
“If they would just give us the address, that’s all we want. We won’t give it out, but we can go back in our records and say we’ve been there, and then we can take precautions and know what needs to be done and make sure our people know they may have been exposed.”
The fire department has implemented changes because of the pandemic. Only one paramedic enters a situation if possible, and if there are signs of COVID-19 infection, the department calls a reserve ambulance. They couldn’t do that for the Oak Park Place call because the county didn’t notify the department, Bomkamp said.
The reserve ambulance has plastic draped inside to seal off the driver from the back of the ambulance where patients are treated. All surfaces are wiped clean after each call in all ambulances like usual.
All first responders are treating every call as a possible exposure, Bomkamp said.
“What if there was a fire in that building and we had to remove the residents? Where are we going to take them if they have COVID-19? We need to be able to do that planning ahead of time, and we can’t do that without information.”
“We’ve transferred several COVID-19-positive patients. We treat everybody as if they have it. We are assuming that they are positive, but if the health department doesn’t tell us, there is no way for us to know for sure.”
Rock County Board Chairman Russ Podzilni said the health department is acting within the law, but he is also hoping for more information.
“The county health officer has the final say on that, and I or (County Administrator) Josh Smith cannot overrule the decision. I would like to see more information. I recently talked with her (Sandoval), and she agreed with me and said they are going to try to share some of that information.”
Podzilni said one idea mentioned to him was the sharing of ZIP codes for positive cases. He believes one of the health department’s concerns is targeting victims, but that wouldn’t make a difference if cases continue to rise.
Bomkamp has thought about bringing to the county board a resolution asking that more information be shared, but he said it won’t likely happen because the resources should be used to fight the virus in other ways.
He hopes the county begins notifying first responders in advance so they can be better prepared.
“This is a no-brainer. This should have been done a long time ago. It’s just going to the command staff and giving us information we need to know for our health,” he said.