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Officers continue to protect, serve during pandemic

By Richard Rourk

Area law enforcement officers have been staying busy while staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department deputies have been protecting Unicoi County citizens from criminal activity while also serving those who may not be able to get out for supplies.

Sheriff Mike Hensley decided that in light of the Presidential Declaration of National Emergency in response to the possibility of the COVID-19 virus hitting the region, it was time to offer the citizens of Unicoi County limited delivery of essential medicines and necessary grocery items. “It’s going real well. We have served several families in the county,” Hensley said. “Whether it’s prescriptions or essential groceries, the citizen will call it in and pay for it over the phone and our officers will pick it up for them.”

UCSD is making pickups from Clinchfield Drug, Roller Pharmacy, Walgreens, CVS, Food Lion, Food City, Priceless Foods and Walmart.

The UCSD is doing all of this while focusing on a heightened attention to everyday disinfecting. “We have gloves, masks and hand sanitizer and they are using them on every call,” Hensley said. “We are also trying to limit how many people we take to jail. We aren’t taking people to jail unless we absolutely have to. But if we have to take someone to jail, we are isolating that individual and sterilizing the vehicle.”

Town of Unicoi Police Chief Andy Slagle has been utilizing the same safety measures as well as limiting exposure for his officers.

“We have gloves and masks, but we are really trying to avoid going into residences unless we really have to,” Slagle said. “We are also trying to keep people from coming into the department. We are really maintaining the 6-foot rule and doing reports utilizing the 6-foot distance.”

Town of Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson has also set up safety precautions for his staff and the public.

“We have taken several safety measures during this time. Obviously we are observing the suggestions from the CDC and Tennessee Department of Health. We are limiting visitors inside the department and trying to not enter houses unless necessary, taking more reports or answering questions by phone if possible,” Tilson said. “We are cleaning our patrol units when we transport anyone, but we were doing that anyway, and officers are issued more PPE for use on calls and assists. Starting today in accordance with new recommendations officers are wearing a mask on every call and when inside any business or home. This is to protect the public from anything we may have been in contact with.”

According to Tilson, a lot of what the Erwin Police Department is doing is the same as they usually do.

“We have assigned an officer to the stores that have elderly and at risk hours to assist if needed and for added presence during those times,” Tilson said. “Much of what we are doing is the same things we always do, but with emphasis in areas where an increase is needed.”

Hensley explained that the jail staff is working hard, along with the residents to keep the area sanitized and for everyone to practice social distancing.

“We had a meeting with the health professionals at the Unicoi County Health Department and they have given our staff some guidelines to go by,” Hensley said. “All of the correctional officers have masks and gloves; all of the inmates have been informed how to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds. We do have plenty of cleaner in the jail to keep the jail sanitized.”

According to Hensley, the citizens are taking the threat of COVID-19 seriously and area crime has been on a decline.

“The citizens have been cooperating and everything seems to be going very good,” Hensley said. “We are really focusing on large gatherings. We don’t want any more than 10 people to gather. Everyone has been doing well with this; we really haven’t seen many large gatherings.”

Slagle acknowledges that he is seeing the same trend as Hensley.

“Crimes seem to have slowed down, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t pick up,” Slagle said. “Traffic has really slowed down as well, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t spike later.”

According to Tilson, crime is about the same as it was before COVID-19.

“Some calls are down, but others are up,” Tilson said. “I think there has been a definite decrease in overall crime and increases in some calls. I looked at our crime numbers for March of 2019 versus March of 2020 and they are identical with very little change in them at all. Traffic is down in most areas except grocery stores and pharmacies.”

For Slagle, the best way for his staff and citizens to stay safe during this time is by utilizing lessons already learned.

“We get through this by using common sense,” Slagle said. “We have to wash our hands, keep our distance and use gloves if you can. If you are out and need gas, use gloves to pump and use hand sanitizer after any contact with people or surfaces. Be mindful of areas that everyone touches. When using debit cards, sanitize it after every use.”

According to Slagle, the best way that citizens can stay safe is by staying home.

“Just stay home, spend time with family. The more we work together on this, hopefully the quicker it will end,” Slagle said.

Slagle added that if you have to be out for essentials, to be sure and think of local establishments.

“If you have to be out, please support local businesses,” Slagle said.

According to Tilson, it takes the whole community to flatten the curve.

“It is up to each citizen and how they respond to the times we live in,” Tilson said. “It is everyone’s responsibility to limit exposure and stop the spread of this very dangerous virus. None of us want to take it home to someone, especially those who are most at risk. We all have family friends and neighbors who would not survive this disease. I don’t want to be the one who spreads it and I am sure no one else does either. If we all do our part I am confident we can slow and stop this virus.”

Tilson acknowledged that it is paramount that everyone listens to the experts when combating COVID-19.

“Please listen to the federal and local experts as they make suggestions to help us stay healthy. The people at the CDC and Tennessee Department of Health are doing everything they can to get us the best information possible,” Tilson said “If you don’t have to go out then don’t. Please limit who does go when you have to go out, wash your hands, wear a mask and please be courteous and think of others your actions may have an impact on.

“We are here to help you in any way we can. We live in this community along with those we serve and want everyone to be as safe as possible. This is all new to us, too. This is an unusual adversary for us all; it is invisible, it is deadly and we all want to see it eradicated. We ask that everyone do their part.”

To learn more about COVID-19, please visit cdc.gov and tn.gov/health.