Protecting West Hartford's first responders

West Hartford Fire Chief Gregory Priest and firemen
West Hartford Fire Chief Greg Priest (center) poses with EMS officer Kristin Fillian and firefighter/paramedic Jason Erban at Station #2. JAX photo by Charles Camarda.

Rapid COVID-19 testing at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine is keeping West Hartford fire, rescue, and EMT teams healthy so they can safely help others.

 It’s 6:59 p.m. in West Hartford, Conn., and like most places these days it’s quiet outside, with few cars and trucks on the road. Suddenly the air is ringing with bells: cow bells, church bells, door bells, jingle bells, Tibetan meditation bells.

This improvised concert is a nightly tribute by the citizens of “WeHa” to the essential workers of the COVID-19 crisis, including health care staff and first responders. “Hearing that widespread appreciation is nice and comforting,” says WeHa Fire Chief Greg Priest. “I imagine it’s motivating for some of our folks who are in the front lines.” 

Though WeHa is like a small city, it’s categorized as a town, the largest in New England, says Mayor Shari Cantor. “Our demographics reflect the state of Connecticut, which is actually representative of the nation. We have a very wealthy component, we have a very needy component. We have an incredibly diverse community, with 74 different languages spoken in our schools and the largest Nepalese population in the state. But most of all, we’re a highly engaged community.”

Priest’s department is responsible for the town’s fire, rescue and emergency medical services, roles that put his people into close contact with people who may have the COVID-19 virus. Besides their basic concern for the health and welfare of their teams, leaders like Priest are faced with the purely practical problem of staffing: A first responder who contracts the virus through contact with a patient could be out of commission for two weeks for quarantine or recovery.

Priest says he and other public safety leaders had recognized, early in the pandemic, that fast and accurate testing would be key to protecting first responders. WeHa Police Captain Kevin McCarthy had pointed out a model in Seattle, one of the first hotspots in the pandemic, which had a police department with in-house paramedics and COVID-19 testing program. “We knew we wanted our own testing program,” Priest says, “for our people and also for their families.”

He relates that one of his battalion chiefs had a son who showed COVID-like symptoms, but was having trouble obtaining a test for the virus. “It took about four days for us to organize getting the son tested. And we felt that if we had been able to get that test done in one day, we could have either started the chief’s quarantine clock right away if the test was positive, or possibly averted a full 14-day quarantine if it was negative.”

Cantor says the town looked at several options for testing, but none met all of their criteria. Then she read about how The Jackson Laboratory (JAX), a nonprofit biomedical research institution with a genomic medicine facility in nearby Farmington, Conn., was partnering with UConn Health to process COVID-19 lab tests with a short turn-around. Cantor reached out to JAX President and CEO Edison Liu and JAX Genomic Medicine Scientific Director Charles Lee.

WeHa Mayor Cantor
West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor stands outside Town Hall. JAX photo by Charles Camarda.

“I informed them that our fire department has a valid CLIA waiver,” Cantor says, “which means that they meet the state and federal regulatory requirement to perform testing — to our knowledge, the only fire department in the state credentialed to do so who was considering using the waiver for testing. Chief Priest verified that we would be capable under our waiver to collect specimens for outside lab testing provided that we have a written policy and training.”

Partnering with JAX was not only convenient, Cantor says, “but we also had the confidence that they have the expertise to do the testing right, that it wasn't a profit-driven endeavor, and that there could be opportunities to expand the relationship over time.”

Chief Priest comments, “The JAX lab team have been the consummate professionals. They have a great process and their people are outstanding. They’ve been very responsive to us, and they’ve stayed with us every step of the way, even when first-responder testing was increased significantly across Connecticut. I think that it was their responsiveness and their willingness to look at our problem and tailor a solution that made us feel very comforted.”

Throughout this crisis, Cantor says she has been making weekly messages over the town’s emergency management mass notification system. “Communication and collaboration are always important, but especially in a time of crisis,” she says. “Our health crisis has caused an economic crisis, and we have started to enter a phase of adaptive recovery as we continue to respond to this situation. We can adhere to CDC guidelines and open safely, but testing is critical to these next phases in our town, region and country.”

Cantor adds, “The need to provide prompt testing to our first responders is essential, not only to protect the public from exposure to this virus, but also to bring our paramedics and other first responders and public safety personnel back online so we can operate safely and efficiently. JAX is helping us make that happen.”