FARGO — North Dakota has what may be its first confirmed, reported case of COVID-19 in a public safety official, and local agencies have been working to make sure their employees don’t become infected.

The city of Minot announced March 31 that a police officer had tested positive for coronavirus.

Police Chief John Klug said the employee has not been hospitalized and is isolated at home, and five other city employees are also quarantined at home after being potentially exposed to the officer.

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The Forum contacted nine F-M area public safety agencies to see if any of their employees had been found to be COVID-19 positive. Those inquiries included police and fire departments in Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead, the sheriff’s departments in Cass and Clay Counties and F-M Ambulance Service.

Responses ranged from “so far, so good” to “I can’t disclose that,” because doing so would violate an employee’s privacy.

However, all of the agencies said they are taking special precautions to ensure employees don’t contract the virus and that they have immediate access to testing for public safety workers who may have been exposed.

They also have plans in place to continue operating effectively should their ranks be drawn down due to illness.

Moorhead Fire Chief Rich Duysen said his biggest worry is if all of his firefighters went down at once.

“That would be a problem,” he said.

So far, they’re been fortunate, he said, and are minimizing exposure by not responding with F-M Ambulance as they normally would to less serious calls.

Fargo Fire Chief Steve Dirksen said his department’s contingency plan for dealing with minimum staffing was developed during times of severe flooding.

“It’s pretty easy to dust it off,” he said.

Privacy concerns vs. openness

Widespread illness could impact an agency’s ability to respond to crashes, medical calls, crimes and fires.

In New York City, approximately 1,400 police department employees had tested positive for COVID-19 and 17 percent of all uniformed officers were out sick on April 1, according to several national media outlets. The city’s fire department has also been hard hit.

Fargo Fire Chief Dirksen said he couldn’t say, for privacy reasons, whether any of his firefighters had tested positive for COVID-19.

Fargo Police Department spokesperson Jessica Schindeldecker referred inquiries to the city's Employee Health Department, which said it does not release any employee health information.

The Cass and Clay County Sheriff’s Departments were more forthcoming about coronavirus and their employees.

Cass County Sheriff Jesse Jahner said their situation is a little different because they oversee the county jail.

Jahner said three people at the jail — two staff members and one inmate — have been tested for COVID-19, but all came back negative.

One jail employee who showed up for work with a cough and chills was sent home and in for a test. Another staff member who thought they were exposed outside of the facility was tested.

An inmate who appeared to have coronavirus symptoms was tested on March 24, Jahner said, but that test was also negative.

Clay County Sheriff Mark Empting said he hasn’t had any staff members tested for COVID-19.

All new intakes at the jail go into seclusion for 10 days to ensure they are not bringing it into the facility, Empting said.

An FM Ambulance employee shows some of the personal protective equipment, or PPEs, available to ambulance crews as they respond to calls during the COVID-19 pandemic. Special to The Forum
An FM Ambulance employee shows some of the personal protective equipment, or PPEs, available to ambulance crews as they respond to calls during the COVID-19 pandemic. Special to The Forum

At F-M Ambulance, no employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at this point, according to a spokesperson for Sanford Health, which owns the ambulance service.

However, eight Sanford Health employees who work in various health care facilities have tested positive for the virus and are recovering at home.

Revised shifts possible

Most local public safety agencies are making plans for how to operate if illness does deplete their ranks.

Dirksen said if it happens, he’ll reduce staff numbers on shifts and probably close some fire stations temporarily.

“It takes a lot of people to fight fires,” he said.

Capt. Deric Swenson, of the Moorhead Police Department, said they don’t have anyone out at this time but continue to monitor the situation.

Like other agencies, Moorhead officers are using social distancing with co-workers and citizens to stay healthy.

“That may mean taking a call over the phone versus . . . in person,” Swenson said.

Fargo PD has also designated two vehicles for special transport equipped with special cleaning agents, protective gear and back seats that are sealed off to avoid unnecessary exposure, Schindeldecker said.

In West Fargo, firefighters and police officers will be sent home after an unprotected exposure, then sent to get tested.

Assistant Police Chief Jerry Boyer said if the test is negative, they go back to work, adding that the testing process will take two days or so.

If a particular public safety department in the F-M metro gets hit especially hard by COVID-19, they'll likely seek help from neighboring agencies in the form of mutual aid.

West Fargo Fire Chief Dan Fuller said that way, they ensure the right resources are available and ready for service.