They drive the buses. They keep the lights on. They collect the garbage. In the face of the biggest public health emergency of the last century, they tirelessly do the hundreds of jobs, big and small, that keep a city operating efficiently.
University of Florida Health is expanding novel coronavirus testing to include all city of Gainesville employees, making voluntary testing available to any worker concerned that they might have been exposed to the virus.
The test used was developed in house by UF Health researchers, and it is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. If a participant receives a positive result, they will be referred for confirmatory testing at their primary care physician, occupational health facility, or the state department of health.
The tests, part of a research project spearheaded by the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute, or EPI, are free, with results usually available within 24 to 48 hours. All 2,500 city employees are eligible for testing, particularly front-line personnel and public safety officers who regularly interact with the public.
The tests are for asymptomatic people who would like to monitor their exposure and health status, said Lisa H. 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.
Anyone with symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is asked to contact their occupational health provider or primary care physician. If someone needs emergency care, they should dial 911 or visit the local emergency room.
“We think it is important to expand the availability of this testing to city employees, those front-line individuals who are out there every day serving the community and keeping the city running,” Merck said. “Their dedication is especially appreciated during this unique time. We all benefit from their hard work, and our team wanted to offer them access to the EPI testing and screening.”
She added, “Understanding exposure, risk and prevalence of the disease is imperative to providing our community both reassurance and informed guidelines for reopening during this time.”
Gainesville City Manager Lee R. Feldman thanked UF Health for its work, referring to Gainesville employees as “community builders.”
“The city of Gainesville is appreciative of UF Health’s efforts to include all of our community builders in its coronavirus testing program,” he said. “UF Health has been a tremendous partner and resource during the pandemic, and this program will enable the city to continue to provide all of our essential services to our neighbors.”
David R. Nelson, M.D., senior vice president for health affairs at UF and president of UF Health, said city employees, like front-line health care workers, stepped up to serve their community even as the world around them self-isolated.
“We’re so very grateful for the efforts of city employees during this time of crisis and pleased that we’re now able to extend testing to them,” Nelson said. “The pandemic has challenged the city, as it has challenged us. We’re all in this together, and through testing, we can better inform public health strategies that will protect us all.”
Merck said the testing is another arm of a UF Health research effort for essential workers that has previously included first responders such as police, firefighters, EMS workers, and front-line health care providers. Additional EPI research testing has included older adults at The Villages®, vulnerable populations in the neighborhoods of Jacksonville, those who are homeless, residents of skilled nursing facilities and schoolchildren.
Testing for essential workers has yielded relatively few positive results for the coronavirus, Merck said. Out of greater than 1,600 tests completed so far for first responders and front-line medical personnel, fewer than 0.5% have resulted in positives, she said.
“This information is quite powerful for people,” Merck said. “It offers reassurance to many front-line providers that their personal protective equipment is working. At the same time, access to testing helps to quickly refer those workers who test positive to the health department for appropriate care.”
At The Villages®, a little more than 1% of the 4,230 people tested positive for the coronavirus, indicating social distancing has had a positive effect in that community, UF Health infectious disease specialists said.
Testing, Merck added, “is the only way we will be able to understand the epidemic. Accurate measurements of those who are affected will allow us to make informed decisions about keeping people safe and reopening as we rein in COVID-19.”
Employees are tested via nasal swab to check for viral shedding.
Visit http://frc.ctsi.ufl.edu for additional information, to provide consent and to preregister. Testing is available by appointment at the UF Health Shands Hospital emergency room at 1515 SW Archer Road, Gainesville, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; noon to 9 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays; or 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays.
Drive-thru testing also will be conducted at UF Health Emergency Center – Kanapaha, 7405 SW Archer Road, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Anyone with questions can call 352-733-3999 or email EDResearch@health.ufl.edu.