Local first responders and emergency room employees who do not have symptoms of the novel coronavirus but nonetheless worry they have been exposed to it can now receive testing at University of Florida Health.
The testing involves a UF Emerging Pathogens Institute research study and will use an assay that has been developed in house at UF Health that has not yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Providers can choose to be tested via nasal swab (to check for viral shedding) and/or a blood draw to check for viral antibodies.
“As the world around them self-isolates to avoid exposure to the coronavirus, these dedicated public servants and medical employees are coming to work each day and doing their best to protect their community,” said Adrian Tyndall, M.D., M.P.H., the interim dean of the UF College of Medicine. “It’s important for us to do everything we can to support them in this time of crisis.”
The move is the latest in a series of efforts by UF Health to bring testing to the communities the health system serves. Knowing more about who becomes ill and about their symptoms is important as health providers seek ways to better protect people.
Locally, UF Health has offered testing for all its patients in the community who meet the criteria for testing, both through the hospital system and through its outpatient practices, such as UF Health Family Medicine – Eastside and UF Health Springhill. Last week, health providers also screened about 120 people at GRACE Marketplace, a resource center for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
In addition, today (April 8th), UF Health launched clinical and research testing initiatives in Jacksonville, aimed at people over the age of 65 or those who have a UF Health Jacksonville primary care physician who live in areas at risk of being disproportionately affected by the pandemic because of difficulties with access to health care and with socioeconomic inequities that could disproportionately impact their outcomes.
And last month UF Health began a program in The Villages that to date has tested more than 3,000 residents of the region.
“Caring for our communities is in our DNA,” said David R. Nelson, M.D., senior vice president for health affairs at UF and president of UF Health. “As an academic health center, our missions of patient care, teaching and research are fundamental to tackling the challenges many grapple with in the face of something like a global pandemic. Our faculty and staff are problem-solvers, and we are working tirelessly to find ways big and small to make a difference in this challenging time.”
The first responder initiative is the latest step in expanding access to screening.
“As part of our vigilance in maintaining a healthy community, testing will be available to first responders and frontline employees as part of a research protocol from the UF College of Medicine and the Emerging Pathogens Institute,” said Lisa Merck, M.D., M.P.H., an associate professor who is vice chair of research in the UF College of Medicine’s department of emergency medicine.
UF Health leaders say they recognize the need to assist personnel who find themselves especially at risk in the ongoing pandemic.
“Our emergency room staffers and all those caring for COVID-19 patients at UF Health are bravely stepping up in this uncertain environment, recognizing the danger of the coronavirus, yet ready to stand at their post to ensure the job of caring for those in need is done with their typical excellence,” said UF Health Shands CEO Ed Jimenez. “Indeed, employees in every department of UF Health Shands are ably filling vital roles every hour of the day, and they are the beating heart of our health system. We appreciate every last one of them.”
The testing — open on a voluntary basis to local first responders and emergency room workers whether they work in Alachua County or not — is being offered at the UF Health Shands Hospital emergency room at 1515 SW Archer Road, Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to midnight; UF Health Emergency Center – Kanapaha, 7405 SW Archer Road, Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and UF Health Emergency Center – Springhill, 8475 NW 39th Ave., Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Anyone interested is asked to visit http://frc.ctsi.ufl.edu to provide consent and to preregister, or to find more information. Or for questions, please call 352-733-3999 or email EDResearch@health.ufl.edu.
Eligible first responders include firefighters, police, emergency medical service employees or emergency room employees, including doctors, nurses and staffers. Results are expected to be returned within 24 to 48 hours, UF Health officials say.
“This is an effort to combat COVID-19, by identifying risk factors, prevalence, disease phenotype, and developing immunity within front-line health care workers,” said Merck.
Those with respiratory symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, should not schedule an appointment. Instead, they should contact their occupational health provider or primary care physician for a physical exam.
Bill Levesque joined the UF Health staff in May 2017 as a science writer covering the Institute on Aging and research of faculty physicians in the College of Medicine. He formerly worked as a reporter at Florida’s largest newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times, for nearly 23 years covering a variety of beats, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, the military, business news, agriculture and courts.