By Kala Kachmar and Darcy Costello – 4/3/2020
Two Louisville coronavirus patients and a family member have been ordered by circuit judges to isolate and wear tracking devices after health officials learned they’d been in public against medical advice.
Issuing health-related civil orders is new territory for the courts, according to Judge Charles Cunningham, who issued two Friday. The third was issued earlier this month when a South End resident who tested positive for coronavirus refused to self-isolate.
But the orders are essential for keeping the community safe when infected patients refuse to self-quarantine, officials said during Mayor Greg Fischer’s Facebook Live briefing Tuesday.
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As of Tuesday, seven people have died of the virus in Jefferson County and 18 across Kentucky.
“The home incarceration program is well-suited for this,” said Amy Hess, the city’s chief of public services, which includes oversight of Metro Corrections and Emergency Services. “It provides us with the proper amount of distancing. We can monitor activity after (the monitoring device) gets affixed to them … to make sure they’re not further affecting the community.
“We would prefer not to have to do it at all,” she said.
Cunningham told The Courier Journal on Tuesday the two individuals he ordered isolated were living together, but only one had tested positive for coronavirus.
The city’s health department submitted a request for the order, which indicated one of the individuals was “walking around” and the other, based on a phone call, was thought to be out of the house, Cunningham said.
Not enough Louisvillians are taking pandemic guidelines seriously, Fischer stressed again Tuesday. In addition to closing libraries, community centers, the zoo and even some parks over the past few weeks, he’s instructed police to cut back on the types of calls for service officers respond to.
And, in response to a lack of respect for his orders, he even had basketball rims taken off backboards in parks.
Both Hess and Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad said the biggest fear is the spread of the virus among first responders such as police officers, firefighters and ambulance workers, especially when “the surge” of coronavirus patients that’s expected starts to overwhelm local hospitals.
So far, one police officer and two firefighters have tested positive for COVID-19, city officials have said. At least eight additional firefighters went into self-quarantine in connection to Louisville Fire’s two positive cases.
A Metro Corrections officer who was sent to attach ankle monitors following Friday’s isolation order has a 101-degree fever and is being tested for COVID-19, said Tracy Dotson, spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 77, which represents the workers.
Dotson said corrections officers haven’t received the same protective equipment as LMPD officers or Jefferson County Sheriff’s deputies also sent to confirmed coronavirus patients’ homes.
“If we’re going to be doing this, fine. That’s what we signed up for,” Dotson said. “But we’d like to be adequately protected, as our sister agencies are. We don’t think that’s too big of an ask. If nothing else, just for peace of mind for those officers.
“It would make me nervous if I showed up in a paper mask and some safety goggles and I saw the two guys there to work with me from different agencies in full respirators,” he added.
Steve Durham, spokesman for Metro Corrections, declined to confirm whether an officer is being tested. He also said first responders wear personal protective equipment recommended by medical professionals, which includes a gown, goggles, gloves and a mask.
‘Feeling our way through’
The first judge to issue an order requiring self-isolation was in Nelson County March 15, when a 53-year-old checked himself out of the University of Louisville Hospital against medical advice after testing positive.
Cunningham said the state’s Administrative Office of Courts put out a 200-page document over a decade ago that gives emergency guidance to circuit judges on topics like public health.
“It’s something we’re all feeling our way through,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out how this should be done.”
Jefferson Circuit Chief Judge Angela McCormick Bisig’s March 21 order required the first Jefferson County individual stay in his home for 14 days. Any violations, it said, may result in his arrest and criminal charges.
It said the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department would serve the order and Metro Corrections would fit him with a global-positioning device. The order said he’d be constantly monitored to ensure he stays home.
Dotson, spokesman for the union that represents Metro Corrections workers, questioned the ethics of using tracking devices on Louisville residents who have not been charged with a crime.
It is a judge’s order, he acknowledged, but “our mandate is once people are charged with a crime, we’re to do whatever it is we do with them.”
“These people aren’t charged with a crime,” he said.
“For my people on the ground, that’s a concern for them.”
Kentucky law gives county health departments the clear power to isolate infected patients who refuse to stay home. Isolation separates sick people with a communicable disease, while quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people potentially exposed.
Nelson County Judge-Executive Dean Watts said the involuntary isolation of the county resident was permitted after he declared a county emergency.
In most states, breaking a quarantine order is a misdemeanor, according to the Centers for Disease Control, although Kentucky law does not provide a penalty.
Courier Journal reporter Andrew Wolfson contributed to this report.