Editor’s note: This story has been updated to disambiguate cases where officers were quarantined due to travel to heavily affected areas from those where officers were temporarily sent home after encountering an individual suspected of having COVID-19.
The Idaho Falls Police Department has asked between 7 and 8% of its officers and dispatchers to self-quarantine while waiting to see if they have symptoms of COVID-19, due to travel to affected areas or contact with someone who has tested positive.
The department has also had several incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic of individuals claiming to have coronavirus coughing and spitting on officers, resulting in some officers leaving work for a shorter period of time.
None of the officers have shown any symptoms of the coronavirus, Idaho Falls Police Chief Bryce Johnson said, and they can return to job if they do not show symptoms and if the department confirms the individual they had contact with has not tested positive for the virus or shown symptoms. Because they do not have symptoms, none of the officers have qualified to be tested for the virus.
On March 28, a suspect in a domestic violence case spat and coughed at officers and Emergency Medical Services personnel after he was arrested, according to court records. Johnson said he has heard anecdotally about other incidents from police officers.
Idaho Falls Police Department Public Information Officer Jessica Clements noted some individuals requesting assistance have warned dispatchers they have symptoms before officers arrived.
Suspects coughing and spitting at officers is not new to the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson said.
“When AIDS was coming around, everyone was telling us they had AIDS,” Johnson said, adding that there had been a recent instance of a suspect spitting in an officer’s eye and claiming he had AIDS. He said suspects may believe having a contagious disease will prevent them from having to go to jail.
While the officers were temporarily removed from duty, they returned to work after police confirmed the suspect who claimed to have COVID-19 had not tested positive.
Acquired immune deficiency syndrome is an infectious disease caused by human immunodeficiency virus that breaks down the immune system. HIV only spreads through sex, breast milk and blood, and not through saliva, sweat or tears.
COVID-19, however, can spread through saliva. Johnson said suspects sometimes believe they will not be arrested or taken to jail if they show symptoms. The Center for Disease Control estimates 25% of people with the virus may be asymptomatic. Others may have the virus for up to two weeks before showing symptoms.
As a result, law enforcement offices have had to take extra precautions during the outbreak. Clements said some officers have been living separately from their families.
“Officers are the ones running toward the danger, toward the gunfire and risking their own lives. But it becomes a lot harder when you talk about risking your family members’ lives,” Johnson said.