A new collaboration between the Town of West Hartford and the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine will collaborate on a program designed to improve COVID-19 testing for local first responders.
By Ronni Newton
The Town of West Hartford and the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine (JAX) have announced a collaboration – the Public Safety COVID Testing (PSCT) program – that will greatly enhance COVID-19 testing availability for West Hartford first responders and their families.
Beginning Friday, West Hartford Fire Department paramedics will be permitted to administer COVID-19 tests to the town’s first responders, and members of their immediate families with whom they reside, and will then deliver the specimens to JAX-GM in Farmington for analysis, with results returned within 24 hours. The 24-hour benchmark was established when JAX began its testing partnership with the State of Connecticut in March.
The testing of West Hartford first responders and family members will take place at Fire Station No. 2 on Brace Road, where a swab or saliva sample will be taken by a West Hartford paramedic. All HIPAA protocols and Department of Public Health regulations will maintained at all times. The process was tested by volunteers on Wednesday.
The ability to quickly and efficiently receive results will allow leadership of the town’s police and fire departments to accurately understand the impact of the coronavirus on their workforce and make schedule changes accordingly depending on is able to work and who must be quarantined. The rapid testing will keep quarantines to a minimum, and minimize stress on the fire and police departments, officials said.
West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor, together with Edison Liu, M.D., president and CEO of the Jackson Laboratory and Charles Lee, Ph.D., FACMG, scientific director of the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, have been working on this collaboration since March. Challenges included obtaining sufficient testing supplies.
“I am so pleased that we can equip our paramedics with the tools to expedite testing of those who are on the front lines of this pandemic and who put their lives on the line for us every day,” Cantor said in a statement. “Keeping our first responders healthy and safe protects our community and is in the town’s best interest,” she said.
Fire Chief Greg Priest said that when the partnership was first being discussed, there were many hurdles to face as well as uncertainties about the testing process. “Even as other testing options became available, we thought that this collaboration with The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine was important to improve our ability to understand conditions and maintain a healthy workforce,” Priest said.
“Our obligation as leaders is to ensure that we have enough responders to fulfill our mission and at the same time trying to support and assist our responders and their families,” said Priest.
“Testing is one of the most important tools in our pandemic response toolkit – we need to drastically increase the amount of tests and speed of test results to properly battle COVID-19, especially among populations on the front line,” said Liu in a statement. “From breeding a crucial mouse model for COVID-19 research and helping ensure scientific continuity for researchers around the globe to ramping up our COVID-19 testing capabilities, JAX is committed to addressing the outbreak as quickly and effectively as possible. We are honored to partner with Mayor Cantor to ensure that West Hartford is able to keep its team safe, informed, and able to provide the crucial health and safety services West Hartford’s residents depend on.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, JAX said it was able to quickly adapt its key capabilities, which focus on complex tumor profiling assays to determine appropriate patient treatment, to test patient samples for a specific RNA signature unique to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
“As an independent, nonprofit biomedical research institution, we are dedicated to improving human health, and this partnership is a wonderful example of how we can pursue our mission right here, in our own community,” said Lee. “It is of the utmost importance to us to serve our first responders and neighbors in West Hartford. As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, we will continue adopting advanced technologies, incorporating new solutions and expanding our work to help fight the health crisis.”
West Hartford Police Department Capt. Kevin McCarthy had learned of a similar partnership for public safety in Seattle – which was among the hardest hit communities early in the pandemic – and brought it to the attention of police department administrators. West Hartford’s PSCT is modeled after that program.
According to Cantor, West Hartford was the first, and only, fire department in the state that applied for special certification to permit its paramedics to do the testing, and the only one that obtained the necessary certification.
EMS Officer Kristin Fillian has spearheaded the creation of the protocols, transforming the program from vision to reality. She worked closely with Dr. Charles Johndro of Hartford Hospital, who oversees West Hartford’s paramedics and serves as the program director.
Aimee Krauss, director of the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District, praised the creation of the PSCT program. “Testing is one of the key elements of our way out of this pandemic,” she said.
Krauss said that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as 25-35% of people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic yet are still capable of spreading the illness to other people.
“The more we test, the more we know,” Krauss said.
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