A new role for Seattle's first responders
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When I was elected mayor, I never could have imagined that Seattle and our region would be at the epicenter of a pandemic. I imagine the same is true for every worker, senior and family across the country. It’s also true for first responders like Seattle Fire Department Lieutenant Brian Wallace, who has led Seattle’s innovative efforts on testing our first responders, front-line workers, and our most vulnerable.

Even before COVID-19 reached our city, our first responders shouldered the immense responsibility of keeping our communities safe, and the spread of a virus with no vaccine and no known treatment makes that task even more daunting. Our Fire Department has had to adapt some of their most basic functions. Assistant Chief Willie Barrington established procedures for quarantining and isolating firefighters, and regularly tracks the impacts of COVID-19 on personnel.  Assistant Chief Bryan Hastings, who oversees the operations division, has implemented trainings for Seattle firefighters to ensure they stay safe and up-to-date on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention while at work. And our first responders have adapted to serve our community in new and innovative ways during this unprecedented time.

In the initial days of the virus, firefighters working on the front lines at the Seattle Fire Department quickly recognized the need for a new life-saving role: mobile testing.  Testing is critical to saving lives and reducing the spread of this virus. With adequate testing, we are able to identify who is infected and isolate them so they do not expose or infect others. In the early days of the pandemic, we knew that many first responders were exposed to COVID-19 but lacked adequate access to testing.

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So Fire Chief Harold Scoggins and acting Lieutenant Paramedic Brian Wallace got to work developing the first in the nation testing site for first responders, conducted by first responders. We trained dozens of paramedics and emergency medical technicians to conduct the tests. Filling a critical need, this model has been used around the country. In Seattle, it has allowed us to serve nearly all of our first responders who need testing as well as front-line city employees, health care workers, and individuals working at homeless shelters.

Seattle Fire was also seeing first-hand the devastating impacts that lack of testing and growing infections had on our most vulnerable communities, especially seniors. In King County, more than 60 percent of COVID-19 related deaths have been associated with long–term care facilities. Many of us have parents, loved ones or friends who live or work in these facilities.

Although these facilities are licensed and regulated by the state and federal government, our firefighters wanted to find a way to slow outbreaks happening at these facilities. Stopping these outbreaks requires ongoing cooperation and coordination between regulators, public health officials, and private medical providers together with the facilities themselves.

Beginning in mid-April, to add testing capacity and help address the spread of this virus in long-term care facilities, the Seattle Fire Department pioneered new Mobile Assessment Teams to deploy to facilities in Seattle. Our teams are now working around the clock at the highest need locations to test every resident and worker, even individuals who may be asymptomatic. This team has already detected dozens of cases at facilities across the county. Their work is literally saving lives.

Without Chief Scoggins and Lt. Wallace’s leadership, these robust and comprehensive programs would not be where they are today. They led the nation in creating a model for every city and fire department. In the coming weeks, the city’s goal is to ensure that we have conducted testing at every long-term care facility in Seattle. And, we are committed to working with health care providers and public health officials to retest sites if necessary. This program can then expand and deploy to other high-risk facilities like retirement communities or other vulnerable communities.

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The leadership of our firefighters is just one example of how first responders have adapted during this unprecedented time. Doctors, nurses, researchers, police officers, grocery clerks, bus drivers, city employees and countless others are stepping up to lead us as champions on the front lines of this virus. Behind every mask or face covering is a daughter, son, friend, father or mother who risks their own health for the safety of everyone else. There are so many heroes among us on the front lines.

Combating this virus will continue to be tough and require compassion and determination from all of us — we are fighting a devastating illness that respects no boundaries. But one thing I know for certain is that with the first responders, paramedics and health care workers we have in Seattle, we will come out of this stronger than ever.

Durkan has been the mayor of Seattle since 2017.