Summit County’s first responders outline plans to prepare for, prevent a local COVID-19 outbreak

Chris Cuculis of Summit Fire & EMS demonstrates how to disinfect COVID-19 from the interior of a fire engine on Friday, March 13.
Liz Copan /

FRISCO — Despite being the first area in Colorado to see the emergence of the novel coronavirus, Summit County has had only one additional known case, which was announced Friday.

With new cases popping up around the state on a daily basis, the county’s first responders are being proactive in trying to prevent the virus from spreading, both to themselves and the individuals with which they’re interacting.

“I think that everybody is talking about it because it’s the biggest thing in the realm of public discussion and fascination right now,” said Steve Lipsher, spokesman for Summit Fire & EMS. “From political leaders, the media and everybody at the coffee shop, everyone is talking coronavirus. And our people are no different.

“We understand what’s going on, and we’re trying to keep things in perspective in terms of what the actual risks are. We recognize that there are a lot of illnesses out there that are potentially harmful to us. It comes with the territory. But we train, we practice, and we prepare for these types of eventualities. To some extent, it’s just another day on the job.”

At Summit Fire & EMS — along with all of the county’s emergency response agencies — danger is a part of everyday life. Though, a rapidly evolving pandemic like COVID-19 presents somewhat of a unique risk, particularly for emergency medical workers.

Lipsher said emergency workers have a “heightened awareness” of the potential for coming into contact with the disease, and the district is taking steps to make sure its staff is ready for the eventuality. Earlier this week, Summit Fire held refresher training in the proper use of personal protective equipment — particularly important for fire districts, which have different standards for things like hazardous materials cleanup vs. contagious diseases.

“In some cases, it’s a very complex process,” Lipsher said. “If someone is suspected of having coronavirus, there’s a set order in how we put on all our equipment. There’s hand washing between each step, and the process of taking all that stuff off is just as important. One thing you want to be careful about is taking all the proper steps around a patient, then accidentally contaminating yourself by doing something out of order.”

Lipsher noted that emergency medical workers aren’t taking any chances, choosing to send a single medic in full protective gear — as opposed to a full crew — for the initial response on any calls regarding respiratory illnesses as well as carefully rationing necessary equipment like masks. The department has more than enough equipment for now, though Lipsher said there’d be a “fight” to get the appropriate gear in place in the event of a major outbreak in the area.

Summit Fire & EMS walks some of its staff through refresher training on personal protective equipment Monday, March 9.
Courtesy Summit Fire & EMS

Likewise, law enforcement agencies in the area have been struggling to get their hands on extra gear.

“Across the nation, many different distributors are just out of gear,” said Peter Haynes, operations commander for the Summit County Sheriff’s Office. “Some simple things like gloves, N95 masks and goggles are a little easier. But gowns are really tough to get right now, and Purell is just gone. … We have enough here to meet needs as the situation stands now. But if cases were to increase, we’d have to find a way to seek out more (equipment).”

In addition to equipping officers with the necessary gear to protect themselves, law enforcement agencies around the county are also taking additional steps to protect themselves and incarcerated populations.

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Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said his deputies and officers around the county have been instructed to try and identify sick individuals in the field whenever possible and are taking extra precautions whenever arrests are made.

“We are screening everyone in our sally port (a secure and controlled entryway to the jail) before they get in our facility,” FitzSimons said. “The worst case scenario is bringing (COVID-19) into the building.”

FitzSimons said a physician gives everyone being brought into the jail a medical screening before they’re allowed to enter and would notify St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in the event anyone exhibits COVID-19 symptoms. At that point, the individual either would be brought to the hospital for testing or hospital staff would come to the jail to administer a test. So far no arrestees have exhibited symptoms.

Jail staff has designated two somewhat isolated holding cells in the jail that could theoretically hold individuals infected with COVID-19, though the facility isn’t equipped with any negative air pressure cells and certainly isn’t designed to stop the spread of infectious diseases. FitzSimons noted that if an inmate did contract the virus, they’d only be held if they were a legitimate risk to public safety.

Law enforcement agencies throughout the county, along with the District Attorney’s Office and Summit County Justice Center also are doing whatever they can to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals in the county.

“Across the board, law enforcement is making judgment calls out there in the field, citing people with summons as opposed to making arrests when possible to reduce that population,” FitzSimons said.

FitzSimons also said police and deputies have been instructed to use a “selective response” to calls for service and weigh the need to respond in person versus over the phone or online.

Summit County Sheriff’s Office Operations Commander Peter Haynes exhibits one of the office’s standard personal protective equipment bags.
Sawyer D’Argonne /

The courts are also doing their part. On Tuesday, courts in Eagle and Summit counties began reducing bond requirements for some nonviolent offenders to allow them to leave jail. In Summit, nine of a total of 59 detained individuals were released under new bond conditions Tuesday alone.

Fifth Judicial District Chief Judge Mark Thompson said that the courts have also enacted on-call judge protocols across the district so that emergency bond hearings can be held for individuals who were arrested on the weekend and exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. That allows officials to make a determination as quickly as possible as to whether the individual can be released from the rest of the jail population.

“We’re taking the steps we can to avoid introducing this virus into the detention population,” Thompson said. “That would be a really difficult situation given the proximity of both staff and other detainees. By having emergency bond hearings, and not holding a person that’s ill in jail, we can determine if they can be released back to whatever medical care is appropriate, whether it’s going back to the hospital or into self-quarantine.”

Signs posted outside of the Summit County Justice Center in Breckenridge warn sick individuals to keep out of the building.
Sawyer D’Argonne /

Additionally, the courthouse is asking anyone who is sick — from prospective jurors to individuals summoned for criminal hearings — to avoid the facility. Thompson said sick individuals summoned for jury duty should contact the court from home, and their duty will be pushed down the line to another time.

Sick individuals who have been summoned to appear for their own court date should contact their lawyer, or the courthouse, and inform them that they are ill and won’t be attending. Though, keeping in contact is still important, as arrest warrants still will be issued for anyone who missed their hearing without first contacting the court.

Even if they’re not feeling ill, those with court dates or jury duty are asked to call the court in advance for additional information.

“We’ve tried to react appropriately,” Thompson said. “We’re trying to handle the situation as best we can. First and foremost, we’re asking that if people are running a fever or have flu symptoms they should contact the court or their lawyer and get a new court date so we can reduce exposure. … I understand there may be some folks out there that might game that system, but at the end of the day, we want ill people to stay home. If you wouldn’t be going to work, we certainly don’t want you at the courthouse.”

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