First responders to get priority COVID-19 testing in Calif. county

Santa Clara County has decided to expedite COVID-19 testing for emergency personnel in the hopes of avoiding staffing shortages


Robert Salonga
The Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — First responders in San Jose and Santa Clara County will get priority for coronavirus testing to avoid large swaths of emergency personnel being suddenly taken out of the field because of potential exposure to the virus, according to officials.

Thursday, the county confirmed plans to give emergency personnel — police, fire, ambulance and other medical staff — expedited COVID-19 testing if they show symptoms of the virus, primarily fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Santa Clara County officials have announced priority COVID-19 testing for first responders to help agencies avoid staffing shortages. More than 10% of the city's firefighters were quarantined after at least eight tested positive for the virus earlier this month. (Photo/San Jose Fire Department)
Santa Clara County officials have announced priority COVID-19 testing for first responders to help agencies avoid staffing shortages. More than 10% of the city's firefighters were quarantined after at least eight tested positive for the virus earlier this month. (Photo/San Jose Fire Department)

“The first responders throughout Santa Clara County are such a valuable part of serving the public every day and they are even more important during these difficult times,” reads a county statement provided to this news organization. “To ensure we can stay as fully staffed as possible in our hospitals, testing centers, fire departments, police and sheriff departments, and other critical divisions, testing by the Public Health Department includes a prioritization for first responders.”

The statement added, “This will allow for prompt response in the case of a positive result and will also allow for a quick return to the field for a negative test.”

The news comes as police confirmed Thursday that a reserve officer with the San Jose Police Department tested positive for the virus. It punctuates an ongoing concern for police officers, since they will remain fully operational during the shelter-in-place era, which stands to last far longer than the currently prescribed three-week term.

“We know there have been multiple possible exposures,” said Paul Kelly, president of the San Jose Police Officers’ Association. “So it’s a matter of time.”

It’s also a particularly resonant topic for San Jose firefighters, who have had at least eight of their personnel test positive for COVID-19, and at one point had to send 80 firefighters — more than 10 percent of the city’s total firefighting staff — home to quarantine. Sean Kaldor, president of the San Jose Fire Fighters IAFF Local 230, said the rising pandemic and regional stay-at-home order mean they can’t absorb another disruption like that.

“Firefighters serve a critical role during the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, responding to those too sick to get to the hospital, and helping ensure precautions are taken to prevent sick patients from spreading the virus,” Kaldor said. “Firefighters who begin to show symptoms of the virus need rapid testing, to expedite their ability to return back into service. The system simply cannot afford a significant number of its firefighters put on the sidelines awaiting testing.”

The only region in the United States that has been harder hit by COVID-19 than the Bay Area and Santa Clara County is Seattle and King County, Washington, and authorities there have installed protocols in which first responders have a dedicated drive-thru setup for those who show symptoms and whose doctors instruct them to get tested. Inquiries to law-enforcement agencies in other parts of the Bay Area indicate that while protocols have been expanded to reduce public contact and do more frequent health screening, expedited COVID-19 testing is not among those measures.

The urgency is palpable for commanders like San Jose police Deputy Chief Tommy Troy, who said suspected or possible exposure has the potential to bring the police department to a standstill. He has particular concern for 911 dispatchers, who work in a singular room and because of the massive amounts of computer and telecommunications equipment they use, are limited in where they can go and how much distance they can keep between them.

“We’d be crippled if I had to send 80 police officers home,” he said. “If this happened in dispatch, we’d have to shut down. There wouldn’t be a person to answer a phone.”

San Jose police Chief Eddie Garcia said rapid testing for his officers and their partners in the field is a welcome sight amid an endless stream of news about moneyed and prominent figures getting tested despite wide reports of testing-kit shortages in the United States and beyond.

“This is a blind spot we have, and we need help,” Garcia said. “It’s difficult for me to tell my rank and file that you can’t get tested until you’re symptomatic because there aren’t enough kits, and then you see Kevin Durant, and other pro athletes and movie stars get tested. I can’t sell that.”

Staff writer Harry Harris contributed to this report.

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©2020 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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