Kerrville firefighters are now being tested for COVID-19 every three days, before their respective shifts, thanks to rapid response test kits provided by the Texas Department of Emergency Management.
Kerrville Fire Department Division Chief Jerremy Hughes said the ability to administer the Abbott BinaxNOW tests to each on-shift member of the department is a “game changer.”
“Up until now, we had to rely on a firefighter or EMS crew member first being symptomatic, then sending that person to be tested and then waiting three days for results,” Hughes said. “Next, we had to determine who was exposed. If that person was on duty, we lost an entire shift at a station (for quarantine) until we knew whether the test was positive or not.”
Hughes said all five crew members (firefighters and EMS) per station would be sent home if one of them became ill while on duty.
“Now, we can stop it at the door,” Hughes said. “We test each of our crew at each station daily. We have the results in 15 minutes. If we have someone test positive, they go home and no one else is exposed.”
Hughes said the Abbott BinaxNOW antigen home test kits are 99 percent accurate and were provided through a grant from the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service and TDEM.
“We’ve been very lucky so far,” Hughes said. “We haven’t had many shift personnel test positive for COVID-19 and have been able to adjust our schedules to keep all of our engines and ambulances manned since this began … mostly because of our policy requiring use of PPE (personal protective equipment) while on duty.”
However, with the local cases increasing daily, EMS crews are coming into contact with large numbers of patients sickened by the coronavirus.
“Usually, 30 calls is a busy shift,” Hughes said. “B Shift ran 50 calls in one day yesterday, many of which were COVID-19-related.”
Hughes, the emergency management coordinator and training chief for the department, said the daily testing process began two weeks ago with department training, first with Hughes and KFD Chief Eric Maloney. Then Hughes went to each station daily, for three days, to train each of the approximate 74 firefighters and EMS crew members.
“Each one of our firefighters and EMS crew has been trained,” Hughes said. “Initially, I tested each one, so that way they were comfortable with it. Out of all staff, all four stations and three shifts, we did not have anyone test positive.”
With the initial mass testing conducted, Hughes said he and Maloney felt relieved to know the safety policies and procedures adopted by KFD were working for their staff.
After each person was properly trained, Hughes said firefighters now administer the tests on themselves prior to entering the station to begin their 24-hour shift.
“As they come on duty, they test. Once their test comes back negative, they go to work,” Hughes said. “If someone tests positive, it is at the beginning of the shift, so we can get that person covered while they go home. With this process, no other firefighters will ever be exposed.”
Hughes said the ultimate goal is to keep the stations manned and to protect the public.
“Even though we wear the protective gear, we can be sure that we are protecting the public as well by this daily testing process,” Hughes said.
Another key benefit, Hughes said, is being able to test someone immediately should they become ill while on duty.
“We are testing them each morning, however, at any time someone with COVID could begin shedding the virus and be contagious,” Hughes said. “So if someone tested negative at the beginning of the shift, but begins to have any of the symptoms while on duty, we can test them.”
Hughes said the test kits use nasal swabs, which are placed in a solution within the kit. A display on the outside of the case will indicate a positive or a negative result. In addition, each kit is marked with a digital code, which the firefighters scan with their cell phones before and after testing.
The kit and the results are registered to the individual and the results are assimilated for both the department and the Texas Department of State Health Services, Hughes said.
“The technology involved with this testing system is really user-friendly and is truly impressive,” Hughes said.
According to Hughes, the Abbott BinaxNOW test kits are available for personal, at-home use by individuals as well, but require a prescription from a doctor.
“We are really making great progress in fighting this virus,” Hughes said. “With the rollout of the vaccines and test kits like these, we can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Hughes said the department has received grants for protective items since the beginning of the pandemic, allowing for PPE and Aeroclave technology to decontaminate the ambulances.