First responders are clearly on the front lines when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, and their well-being is essential so they can help residents.

Law enforcement

Los Lunas Police Chief Naithan Gurule said he has limited the time patrol officers are spending in the police station.

“We want them to be conducting patrols in parking lots and at businesses, especially now that they’re closed,” Gurule said. “We are trying to limit contact with the public as much as we can while still performing our duties. It’s hard — it’s not easy.”

Naithan Gurule
Los Lunas Police Chief

The the police department’s front office is closed to the public and they’ve suspended performing fingerprints for the public. Gurule says he’s encouraging residents to phone in reports when possible.

“Obviously, there are times when we can’t, such as a domestic violence incident or a robbery,” he said. “Phone reports can be called in where there’s incidents that we’re not going to be able to collect evidence, like a lost driver’s license or a stolen license plate.”

The chief said that doesn’t mean police won’t investigate. With modern technology and a lot of video surveillance out there, detectives will still be doing their jobs.

In other types of crimes, police will be responding to burglaries and other incidents where they could be able to collect evidence.

“My direction to my traffic unit, who is taking the majority of complaints, is to still monitor and conduct traffic enforcement. Overall, we still need to be present for the majority of calls, especially at this time when we need to be visible and let the community know that they’re safe.”

As officers continue to do their job while trying to protect themselves, Gurule says Los Lunas officers are trying to limit contact, but for the majority of the calls, they can’t do that.

As a precaution, LLPD Sgt. Jonathan Norris has set up a sanitizing station in the department’s sally port, where there is a variety of cleaning supplies officers can use on their units after returning from a call. There is also a secondary station near the fire department, where they’re able to fill up on cleaning chemicals.

“Throughout the day, (Norris) is coming around the department and wiping down everything a couple of times a day — on top of what the normal cleaning crew does,” Gurule said.

“When we deal with the public, we would normally wear gloves, depending on the call,” the chief said. “Now, we’re having to slow down, give out more verbal warnings, but if we do have to have someone sign a citation, a lot of officers have extra pens they can dispose of and then clean their hands with hands wipes.

“It’s a very delicate balance to keep the officers safe but at the same time, we have a very important job to do and we’re going to make sure this community is safe no matter what.”

Fire and rescue

The Belen Fire Department is now operating under a new standard operating guideline.

“Anytime we have something like this, we put out a new guideline to go by,” said Belen Fire Chief Bret Ruff. “What we’re stating is that dispatch will ask the questions regarding the nature of the emergency. If they think have COVID-19, or if they have symptoms, they’ll ask to go through the list — fever, cough and respiratory distress.”

If it doesn’t appear to be life-threatening, a dispatcher will more than likely tell them to call the COVID-19 hotline — 1-855-600-3453 — for medical questions, including symptoms and testing, and 1-833-551-0518 for anything else, including child care, business operations and food supply.

Belen Fire Chief Bret Ruff

Dispatchers will ask if the symptoms are life-threatening, Ruff said. If EMTs are sent to a home for a possible case of COVID-19, they’ll send in one responder with a proper facial N95 mask, wearing a gown and proper safety attire.

“The initial assessment will include to see if there is anything life-threatening, such as having a hard time breathing, and an extremely high fever. Treating it as life-threatening takes precedent,” Ruff said. “That’s when they might have to transported.”

If a patient does have to be transported to an Albuquerque hospital, one EMT or paramedic will remain with the person in the back, and they would put a surgical mask on the patient and stay in their protective gear and transport to the hospital.”

As for other ailments, such as possible heart attacks or serious injuries, local EMTs will continue to do their jobs to help residents.

Ruff reminds people that the COVID-19 pandemic is a serious situation, and if you’re feeling ill, stay home and take care of yourself.

“Just because you might have a fever, it might be something else. We’re in the tail end of the flu season, and the beginning of allergy season. Coughing sneezing … doesn’t mean you have COVID-19.”

The fire chief advises to keep your immunity up by keeping hydrated and to continue to wash your hands frequently with warm, soapy water for at least 20-30 seconds. He also said to make sure people keep your surroundings clean, such as surfaces, door knobs and especially your cell phones.

As for our local firefighters and EMTs, Ruff said they are continuing with making sure they are safe and healthy.

“I wouldn’t say we’re taking extra precautions,” the fire chief said. “When we’re dealing with the public, we always treat everyone the same. We don’t know if they have COVID-19 or HIV or Hep A or C. So we wear gloves, glasses to keep eyes protected. If we have someone coughing or sneezing, we’ll put on a N95 mask, which is every-day precautions.”

In an effort to keep their families safe, the firefighters and EMTs are washing their uniforms at the station so they won’t take them home after a shift.

Animal shelter

Valencia County Animal Shelter Director Jess Weston said the department’s animal control officers are following the same basic guidelines as the sheriff’s department, trying to increase distances when having to make face-to-face contact.

Valencia County Animal Control Director Jess Weston

“We’re dispatching via the phone from home rather than my guys being at the shelter,” Weston said. “It’s mainly to limit the face-to-face, hand-to-hand contact here at the facility.”

While shelter employees are maintaining their distance, the officers are still responding to call, picking up animals running at large and to calls such as bites and cruelty cases.

“When we are going to someone’s property, we’re asking residents to stay in their vehicles and homes,” Weston said. “We’ll ask as much as we can to get the information, and we’re trying to take reports over the phone.”

The Valencia County Animal Shelter is still open, and continue to take in animals. They’re also asking the public to continue to adopt dogs and cats.

“We’re asking the public to still continue to adopt from the facility, but at the same time, we’re asking people to view animals online,” Weston said. “We have two volunteer Facebook pages, and we are still posting pictures of the animals on the county website. Look at those for photos, and if you see an animal you might want, we’ll arrange for an outdoor meet and greet.”

Weston wants to minimize how many people are in the facility, and asks that only one person per family go to the shelter if they are contemplating adoption.

“If they fall in love with an animal, the front office staff will coordinate by phone, and they’ll fill out the paperwork of the potential adopter, but they’ll still have to physically sign the contract.”

If the animal is not yet fully socialized, shelter staff is allowing customers to go into the facility — one person per visit.

“My staff has gloves and masks and are following increased cleaning protocols to keep themselves and the public safe,” Weston said. “We’ll bring them into the facility to meet with the dog.”

Shelter employees are also practicing safe physical distancing in the facility, Weston said. They each have their own designated areas not to cross contaminate.

“Over the last couple of days, less people are coming in,” Weston said last week. “We are still in need of donations. Our facility relies on cleaning products. We’re a high-intake facility, and we’re operating as normal with increased restrictions.”

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.