Inside a Seattle police warehouse just south of downtown, next to a bomb-squad truck and parking-enforcement vehicles, a 6-foot wide rectangle has been marked with yellow tape on the concrete floor.
Inside the rectangle — the potential exposure area — an EMT in a hooded Tyvek suit with a filtered gas mask wields a long nasal swab, ready to take samples from drivers who pull into the warehouse but never leave their car. Every driver who pulls in is either a police officer, firefighter, medic or dispatcher.
This, according to the City of Seattle, is the first COVID-19 testing site in the country dedicated to first responders.
It’s part of a push by the city to ensure the region’s police, firefighters and ambulance drivers will be able to continue to do their jobs, even as the disease continues to spread.
In the last three weeks, 45 Seattle firefighters, nearly 5% of the department, have had a confirmed contact with COVID-19 and been forced to self-quarantine for two weeks, Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins said. As of Thursday, 24 remain in quarantine.
“In the beginning of this, we did not have a pathway to get firefighters and police officers who were serving the public a way to get tested,” Scoggins said. “We’re going to still go on more calls each and every day related to this...”
Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best said they’ve had “several” people tested, with some of tests coming back negative and some still pending. “That number’s always changing,” she said.
The Seattle Times reported Thursday a janitor at the same office park that the new testing facility is located at recently tested positive for COVID-19, potentially exposing multiple officers to the virus. That employee was sent home, and some officers where ordered to have medical testing.
Since it went into service Saturday, 56 first responders from about a half dozen agencies — mostly in King County, but across the Puget Sound region — have been tested for the novel coronavirus. Two have tested positive for the virus, although dozens more tests are still pending, according to Dr. Michael Sayre, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Washington and medical director for Seattle Fire Department.
“It is of the upmost importance to ensure that they are safe and have the equipment they need,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a prepared statement. “Limited access to testing hampered our ability to respond.”
Seattle firefighters responding to medical calls now routinely arrive wearing personal protective equipment — gowns, gloves, masks and glasses, “which looks very different than what they wear on most days,” Scoggins said. They now have about a six- to eight-week supply, said Brian Wallace, Seattle Fire’s EMS training coordinator.
The drive-through test only takes about five minutes, officials said, but it generally takes two to three days to get results, although they’re working to lower that time.
Just like the rest of the region and the country, the new program is managing with a limited testing capacity. They have more than 100 tests now, donated by Harborview Medical Center and Virginia Mason, and have ordered 100 or so more, which should arrive shortly, Sayre said, enough to get through next week. With tests nationwide in such high demand, they don’t want to store a huge inventory, he said.
First responders who are showing symptoms can report to their agency’s health officer, who then will refer them to Sayre or another doctor who will schedule a test.
“We’re not making a very high bar here, but they do have to have symptoms,” Sayre said.
The nasal swab has to go a couple inches deep into each nostril, an uncomfortable process that can cause an involuntary cough or sneeze. That’s why the yellow rectangle excludes technicians wearing less extreme protective gear. Two other EMTs then take the swab and seal it in a vial, to be sent to the UW Virology Lab. The tests are given “moderate priority,” Sayre said, less than patients in intensive care, but more than some other samples.
“As this epidemic continues to increase, we could have a large number of folks who are unable to work because they’re sick,” Sayre said. “So the availability of this testing is essential.”