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Flagstaff first responders tested for COVID-19 antibodies
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Flagstaff first responders tested for COVID-19 antibodies

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Last week, Flagstaff’s first responders were offered testing for COVID-19 antibodies as part of a statewide initiative by the University of Arizona and the State of Arizona to measure which individuals have developed antibodies against the coronavirus.

Flagstaff Fire Department Station No. 6, off Lake Mary Road, had tested 157 fire department and law enforcement employees as of late Thursday morning, with about 300 more expected by the end of the testing Friday.

Crews from local fire departments — Flagstaff, Summit, Highlands, Ponderosa, Pinewood and Camp Navajo — plus members of local law enforcement were invited to participate in the voluntary testing, a four-day effort that began Tuesday.

“I’ve been around quite a few people that have had [COVID-19], so I’m just curious,” said Flagstaff Police Department’s Ryan Priest as he signed in for testing Thursday.

The testing site was set up in the station’s conference room, in an area separate from where those on duty are located. Collecting the blood samples needed to test for antibodies took about five minutes.

According to the University of Arizona’s antibody testing website, antibodies can exist in four different forms; the test being used measures total antibodies, unlike other tests that distinguish between the types.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports “the presence of antibodies may decrease a person’s infectiousness and offer some level of protection from reinfection,” but it is still undetermined which antibodies and concentrations are needed for protection.

Samples collected during this initiative are first processed in a mobile lab unit on-site, which spins the samples to separate components in the blood for analysis, before being transported every evening by courier to UA’s Bioscience Research Laboratories for testing.

Participants receive results within seven to 10 business days of testing.

Captain Matt Smyers, a paramedic with FFD and the department’s liaison with the City of Flagstaff during the pandemic, said the testing can provide an indicator of how effective the organization’s personal protective equipment (PPE) policies are.

“Nobody [in FFD] has tested positive for the active COVID-19 that we know of, but we could still see a certain percentage that maybe were asymptomatic that were exposed but didn’t know about it,” Smyers said.

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If antibodies are connected to immunity, the tests could also help the department plan for future spikes in sickness among those who have not been previously exposed to the virus, in order to keep stations operating at normal levels.

Primarily, though, Smyers said the presence of antibodies could provide peace of mind for local first responders.

“We have guys right now that are brand-new fathers,” Smyers said. “We go on these calls and when we’re at the station we expect these certain risks, but our families don’t often expect these same risks. We have guys that are quarantining themselves in one room in their house because they’re worried about bringing these things back to their families.”

Although call volume to FFD decreased during the height of the stay-at-home order, engineer paramedic Paul Sanders said calls are quickly trending upward once again, bringing with them potential exposures to the coronavirus.

“This last week we were up a couple hundred calls from this same time last year, so it’s been kind of hit or miss,” Sanders said. “There hasn’t been a real consistency across the shifts at all. It’s been pretty wild.”

As of a Monday update from Coconino County Health and Human Services, positive COVID-19 cases in the county total 1,246 — 727 of which are residents of tribal communities — and there have been 82 deaths.

“We are not out of this outbreak, nor are we even seeing that much of a decrease,” said Coconino County Epidemiologist Matt Maurer, urging members of the public to be especially cautious when they are traveling this summer.

He said positive antibody tests fall into the County’s categorization for probable cases of COVID-19, of which there are currently 33.

Using a time-based calculation subtracting deaths from total positives, the County is also reporting that 660 people have recovered from COVID-19. If an individual has not died within 28 days, or four weeks, of their reported illness, they are considered a recovered case. Maurer said mild cases can take from two to four weeks for recovery, while more severe cases can take from four to six weeks, so the County chose to use a middle number.

The first phase of the UA antibody testing initiative began in Pima County in late April and expanded to other sites starting May 18. Using $3.5 million provided by the state of Arizona to increase testing, the university has set up 31 antibody testing sites in all 15 Arizona counties.

Jefferey Hanna, a clinical research coordinator at UA who joined the testing team sent to Flagstaff, said the overall goal is to test between 250,000 and 260,000 first responders and health care workers statewide.

North Country HealthCare in Flagstaff and Canyonlands Urgent Care in Page are also participating in this testing. To register for a COVID-19 antibody test through UA’s program, visit www.covid19antibodytesting.arizona.edu.

Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253.

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