A New Role for Seattle’s First Responders and the Continued Fight for More Testing for Everyone in Our Community

When someone in Seattle dials 9-1-1, our first responders show up.  They protect and help our community by responding to every type of emergency, many times putting themselves in harm’s way. In the midst of this pandemic, their work has been more critical than ever by responding to ongoing emergencies, administering lifesaving care, and transporting individuals to hospitals for a range of needs, including COVID-19.  

However, the virus has dramatically changed how we all do our jobs, and what jobs need to be done. Our first responders are on the frontline of these changes. Understanding the lack of testing in our community, especially among our most vulnerable, the Seattle Fire Department has taken on a new life-saving role: mobile testing. From testing workers and seniors at long-term care facilities to frontline health care workers at our shelters, our firefighters and paramedics are taking on a new role to slow the spread of COVID-19.  

Testing is critical to saving lives and beating this virus. With adequate testing, we can identify who is infected and have them isolate so they do not expose or infect others. Their contacts can be traced and tested and quarantined as necessary. Testing can also help get people who are exposed back to work more quickly.   

Early in the days of the pandemic, we saw that many first responders were exposed to COVID-19 but lacked adequate access to testing. So Seattle Fire and Police Departments set up the first in the nation testing site for first responders, conducted by first responders. Since the opening of Seattle’s site in mid-March, more than 400 individuals have been tested. In addition to neighboring agencies, the City now serves frontline city employees, health care workers, and individuals working at shelters within the City.  

We also know what happens when we lack adequate testing and the ability to intervene in growing infections in other vulnerable communities. We cannot repeat the mistakes of the federal government to limit testing early in the pandemic.   

As recent reports highlighted, the virus has disproportionally impacted nursing homes across the country. The New York Times reported at least 5,200 locations with cases that have impacted 63,000 residents and staff – 10,500 have died. In Washington, reports highlight we are not immune to hundreds of facilities with positive cases and deaths. In Seattle, nearly half of COVID-19 related deaths have been associated with longterm care facilities, and 92% of deaths have been individuals who are older than 60.   

In Seattle, there are 191 skilled nursing, assisted living, and adult family homes with approximately 6,550 residents and 4,000 workers. Currently, we know that there are at least 28 such facilities with one or more positive COVID-19 cases. Many of us have parents, loved ones, or friends who live, work, or are currently residing at these facilities.  

The City of Seattle does not oversee any of these facilities, which are licensed and regulated by the state and federal government, and the city also does not have the personnel or supplies to test everyone. But they are our neighbors, family members, and loved ones. Stopping these outbreaks requires ongoing cooperation and coordination between regulators, public health officials, and private medical providers – together with the facilities themselves. Some of these facilities have faced two huge hurdles: the lack of reliable testing kits and the personnel to administer them.  

Beginning in mid-April, to add capacity and assist in the challenge, the City pioneered new Seattle Fire Department Mobile Assessment Teams to deploy to facilities in Seattle. We have more than 20 members of SFD trained. Since April 14, our initial two mobile testing teams have conducted more than 500 tests at long-term care facilities.   

Because significant infection is spread by asymptomatic individuals, the goal is to conduct universal testing of every resident and worker at these facilities with positive cases and growing infections. In March, as a potential cluster occurred at a facility in North Seattle, the City advocated for widescale testing. Chief Scoggins worked with the facility and UW to test every resident and worker – this has been highlighted by the CDC as a model for the nation. Isolating and quarantining residents and workers (many who are often asymptomatic) is a critical part of infection control, especially at these facilities where the virus can be so devastating.  

In the coming weeks, assuming the state and public health departments can procure sufficient testing kits, the mutual goal is to test nearly every long-term care facility in Seattle and work with health care providers and public health officials to retest sites if necessary.  Implementing infection control measures, appropriate isolation or quarantine and contact tracing are also critical.  

As we continue to monitor our long-term care facilities, we are equally concerned and working to mitigate the fact that this virus continues to be a threat to other locations with our most vulnerable populations with shared common spaces and facilities: shelters, senior housing, independent living facilities, permanent supportive housing, or retirement communities. We also know that we have to continue working with health care providers and community health clinics to create more drive-up and walk-up testing for our most vulnerable, like the one in Rainier Beach. Our new mobile assessment teams can be part of these solutions alongside the dedicated workers of Public Health – Seattle & King County and health care providers.  

However, I want to be honest that we still lack the widescale testing and contact tracing needed in our community at this moment. Every resident deserves a test – especially in our communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by this pandemic, yet our federal government has not taken the steps necessary or used the power it has to ensure adequate nationwide testing. Instead, Mayors and Governors are competing for the same testing supplies.  

Combating this virus will continue to be tough – we are fighting a devastating illness that has spanned the globe. But one thing I know for certain is that by working together we can come out of this a stronger, more unified community. You have my assurance that I will never stop advocating for the resources necessary to get our community through this pandemic.