Excerpts from kqed.org:

When Hayward (CA) Fire Chief Garrett Contreras saw that San Jose had to quarantine many of its firefighters after they were exposed to coronavirus, he thought it could happen to his city too.

In response, he rallied community members and a private company to make sure Hayward is keeping track of its coronavirus outbreak. The city will open a testing facility geared towards first responders emergency workers and health-care workers. They will also test members of the public who are symptomatic. The fire chief is the brainchild of the effort, inspired by the ongoing difficulty of getting Hayward’s firefighters tested after possible exposure.

“Suppression through isolation after testing, or SIT, as we call it, is an approach that has proven to be most effective in countries on the leading edge of this pandemic,” Contreras said.

On March 15, he began sending out hundreds of emails and LinkedIn messages to city leaders and labs. He also became a student of the virus, observing how other countries, such as South Korea and Italy, varied in their response to the crisis. In days, he secured $500,000 from the City of Hayward and a partnership with Avellino Lab USA, Inc., based in Menlo Park — a company specializing in gene therapy, molecular diagnostics and medicine for eye care.

The center has enough test kits for up to 370 people a day, for about a month. The testing is free to the public and open to anyone, regardless of city, county, or immigration status. Those who wish to be tested will first need to go through a screening process before a test is administered. The test involves swabbing of the nasal cavities and the back of the throat. No referral from a medical doctor is required to be screened, and results will be available in as soon as six hours or the next day.

Contreras says his station is treating the effort as they would a natural disaster, with special strike teams that go out on suspected coronavirus calls. Firefighters at the testing station are on duty for seven days, just like they would during a wildfire, after which they’ll be tested before taking a break and resuming another assignment.

“I believe that expertise is being underutilized right now because people don’t make the connection of the fire service to an event like this,” he said. “It’s seen as a health care problem and this is a disaster on par with a 7.0 earthquake.”

Contreras also sees the testing site as an effort to decrease the pressure on hospital emergency rooms. “There is enough equipment out there,” he said. “My belief is it’s just not in the places it needs to [be] because it’s not organized the way that we would organize resources in the fire.”

The testing center will operate seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and will be staffed by the Hayward Fire Department with both firefighters and paramedics. It will also be supported by emergency medical technicians.

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