Henrico offers COVID-19 testing to public safety workers

Program aims to increase protections for staff, community

Henrico County has begun offering COVID-19 testing to first responders and other frontline employees regardless of whether they show symptoms of the disease.

Officials are hoping to strengthen protections for these workers and the community as well as increase understanding of how the virus spreads without carriers exhibiting the common symptoms of a high fever, a dry cough or shortness of breath.

“There’s tremendous uncertainty around COVID-19,” said Jackson Baynard, Henrico’s emergency manager. “There’s uncertainty around who’s been exposed to the disease. There’s uncertainty organizationally, family wise and individually. We have to look for opportunities to gain more information.”

The testing kicked off Wednesday at a drive-thru clinic that stretches across a parking lot at Virginia Center Commons. About 200 individuals have been tested, with an additional 400 registered.

The initiative could continue up to three weeks, with tests administered by Dentrust Optimized Care Solutions. The tests are being processed at the University of Virginia Medical Center and Sentara Lab Services.

The program is open to neighboring localities and other partners, such as long-term care facilities, at their own cost. Powhatan County and the Richmond International Airport police and fire departments have signed on to participate.

The clinic is administering tests for both the antigen and antibody for COVID-19.

That’s unprecedented and could provide valuable information about the disease, said Dr. Larry Caplin, CEO and founder of Dentrust Optimized Care Solutions. He credited Henrico for “putting a stake in the ground” with comprehensive testing of first responders and health care workers.

“They’re the ones who are most susceptible to being exposed and are also critical to any effort that we have at protecting the overall population,” he said.

“Henrico County is being absolutely forward leaning on this,” Caplin added. “I’m not aware of anywhere in the country that’s run at [this] scale antibody and antigen testing simultaneously.”

A positive antigen test following a throat swab would indicate a likely infection with COVID-19 and would trigger an additional test for confirmation, according to guidelines of the county’s testing program. The results of the antigen test are typically available within 24 hours.

Any employee positive for the antigen would be required to take leave and self-isolate, with staff conducting a contact investigation, if necessary.

A positive antibody test from blood following a finger prick could indicate a prior exposure to COVID-19 or possibly another virus. A negative result would not rule out infection in the future, but it could help public health officials better understand the virus and the immune system’s reaction to it. A positive antibody result is typically available within 30 minutes.

Baynard said he welcomed the opportunity to be tested, even though he has experienced no symptoms associated with COVID-19.

“I’m very curious about the antibody side and the potential benefit of this test two days from now or six months from now,” he said early Thursday. If exposed unknowingly to the disease, “maybe I was asymptomatic and built up the antibody.”

As of Friday, Baynard had tested negative for the antibody and was still awaiting results of the antigen test.

The timing of mass testing is good, he said, given the number of cases locally and emerging research that supports the notion of asymptomatic spread. Henrico had 718 confirmed cases and 83 deaths from COVID-19 as of April 24, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

So far, the county has had only a small number of COVID-19 cases among its emergency responders, said Baynard, who credited the county’s adherence to safety protocols and use of personal protective equipment.

While widespread testing for COVID-19 remains limited, Henrico’s effort “could be a very meaningful snapshot for public safety departments in the Commonwealth and across the country,” he said.

“These are unprecedented times,” he added, “so you need to make aggressive moves in order to protect our community and protect our employees in public safety.”

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