Tests show 4% of symptom-free first responders in Conn. city have COVID-19

City leaders plan to test as many first responders as possible to prevent those without symptoms from unknowingly spreading the virus


Angela Carella
The Advocate, Stamford, Conn.

STAMFORD, Conn. — In the battle of people vs. COVID-19, the virus has a secret weapon.

It can infect someone who shows no symptoms of sickness, then spread from that unknowing person to others.

Stamford Mayor David Martin, second from right, says he hopes to test as many first responders as possible after initial tests revealed 4% of responders without symptoms were positive for COVID-19. (Photo/Stamford Government Facebook)
Stamford Mayor David Martin, second from right, says he hopes to test as many first responders as possible after initial tests revealed 4% of responders without symptoms were positive for COVID-19. (Photo/Stamford Government Facebook)

For that reason, Mayor David Martin, like a number of his counterparts nationwide, has begun testing first responders who feel fine — no cough, no fever, no shortness of breath, no sign of coronavirus infection.

Initial results of the effort, which began about two weeks ago, are in.

The focus group is roughly 600 police officers, firefighters, ambulance medical workers, 911 dispatchers and city health department nurses.

So far about 500 first responders have been tested, said Laura Burwick, the mayor’s assistant for special projects, and the city has logged 462 results.

They show that about 4% of asymptomatic first responders in fact have the virus, Burwick said.

“The mayor’s goal is to test as many as possible to find out who is positive so we can pull them out of the workforce,” Burwick said. “One person in the 911 dispatch center, for example, who doesn’t know they have the virus can take down an entire shift. That would not be good for the public safety.”

The city is concerned about 911 dispatchers because they come into contact with police and fire officials, and about health department nurses because they work at the city’s COVID-19 test site at Westhill High School.

Contact control

Burwick said the numbers to date are not broken down by type of first responder, but “those directly exposed to COVID patients are more likely to be infected,” she said.

So far, the Stamford Fire Department has fared well, Chief Trevor Roach said. It’s especially so since Stamford, with 2,339 COVID-19 cases and 125 deaths as of Wednesday, has the largest numbers of any municipality in Connecticut.

“We’ve tested 200 so far and 6% were positive,” Roach said. “No one has had to be hospitalized. Everyone recovered at home.”

The numbers are a good surprise, the chief said.

“We work hard to make sure exposure is low and that people get treated as soon as we recognize they need it,” he said. “Everyone wears surgical masks at all times, and we are cleaning the firehouses like crazy. We’ve changed the response protocol to make sure we expose a fewer number of people to anyone who is COVID positive.”

Limiting exposure starts with 911 dispatchers, who ask questions to determine whether a caller has tested positive for the virus or lives with others who are positive, and the nature of their symptoms.

“If the person is having huge trouble breathing, we send the fire department with EMS,” Roach said. “If it’s a COVID call but the person is not in severe distress, we send only an ambulance to transport the person to the hospital.”

Most of the firefighters who tested positive have been cleared to return to work; staffing has not been affected, the chief said.

1st on scene

That’s critical in Stamford, where the fire department often gets to medical calls first.

“All firefights are (emergency medical technicians) so if we get there and the person is in respiratory distress, we administer oxygen or CPR,” Roach said. “We can get there quicker than EMS because we have more people, and we are strategically placed in the city. We can respond to anything within four minutes. EMS can get there in seven minutes. The extra minutes matter.”

Stamford EMS Assistant Chief Edward Browne said he hasn’t had a chance yet to calculate the percentage of paramedics who tested positive, but he wouldn’t be surprised if it were up around 10% or 12%.

“We’re more exposed day to day. We’re treating people close up and doing medical procedures close up,” Browne said. “We’ve been wearing protective gear for weeks. We have masks on all the time. We put masks on patients to protect us. We’re being very careful.”

Staffing levels are OK for now, Browne said.

“We’re monitoring it closely,” he said. “Calls have leveled off — we’re not running as crazy as we were a few weeks ago. But it’s still steady.”

Virus on calls

For the Stamford Police Department, the statewide distancing orders enacted to stem the spread of coronavirus have resulted in fewer calls, Chief Tim Shaw said.

In two categories, however, call volume has increased. One is for police help with mental-health issues; the other falls under “dead on arrival.”

The DOA’s are mostly older people who die in their homes, Shaw said. It follows a national trend, though it is not clear whether the people are victims of COVID-19 or victims of medical problems for which they did not seek help for fear of contracting the virus in a doctor’s office or hospital.

So far about half the city’s police officers have been tested and 3% were positive, Shaw said.

“Most of the cases result from calls where an officer came in close contact with someone who has the virus, or we find out later that they had it,” Shaw said. “Other than that, we’re trying to keep people away from each other. They share cars, but we’re wearing masks around the building and there’s no more line-up, so we don’t have 30 people in a room.”

Shifts are adequately staffed, Shaw said.

“We’re in decent position as of right now,” he said. “I’m hoping we can maintain it.”

Need for tests

Burwick said asymptomatic first responders who test positive are quarantined, and those who test negative are retested two weeks later, even if they still have no symptoms. The city is administering the program but the nasal-swab tests, for the most part, are paid for by the first responders’ health-insurance providers, Burwick said.

Martin said last week the administration has expanded the program to 1,400 workers at the city’s five nursing homes and five assisted-living facilities.

The nationwide problem of obtaining tests poses limits, Burwick said.

“We are looking everywhere we can to get more,” she said. “We don’t have enough to test every person in Stamford. If we did, we would. For now, we are focusing on those places where we see a lot of virus.”

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©2020 The Advocate (Stamford, Conn.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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