UMass to provide COVID tests for Amherst first responders

  • Signs near Amherst Town Hall remind people that masks are required. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/6/2020 6:01:31 PM

AMHERST — The University of Massachusetts will begin providing weekly asymptomatic COVID-19 testing for around 100 Amherst first responders and inspectors.

Through the partnership, around 100 firefighters, police and inspectors will have access to a regular asymptomatic testing program for the first time, according to Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

“It fits in with our total preventive and protective policy,” said Amherst Fire Chief Tim Nelson, who will take the lead in managing the partnership between the town and university.

“It makes sense, it’s a smart thing to do, and it will bring a lot of peace of mind as well throughout the department,” he added.

Since the pandemic first struck, the Fire Department has been taking preventive measures such as providing first responders with proper personal protective equipment and sending employees to Cooley Dickinson Hospital for testing if they had reason to expect they could have been exposed to the virus, Nelson said. But the asymptomatic testing, conducted at the Mullins Center, will provide an extra safeguard for employees whose jobs make them more vulnerable to exposure.

“Our job is high risk all the time,” Nelson said. “This is such an insidious disease, you really don’t know when you might be exposed, because a lot of folks transmit it while they’re asymptomatic.”

No first responders or inspectors in the town have reported testing positive for COVID-19 during the pandemic, according to Bockelman. But if a case were to be detected, the testing could help prevent an outbreak by alerting employees to take steps to quarantine to protect their co-workers and their families.

The UMass asymptomatic testing program is among the largest of its kind in the state, according to the university. The Amherst campus has conducted more than 70,000 tests since Aug. 6, around 48,000 of which have been administered to students living off-campus in the Amherst area.

Recognizing this “very robust testing system,” Bockelman said that the town reached out to the university to request the partnership. The town will reimburse UMass for testing costs.

“The town of Amherst has a similar need for our first responders and inspectors who are out in the field, who are oftentimes working side-by-side with UMass employees,” Bockelman said.

In a statement, UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said that the university “has a long tradition of supporting and partnering with the town’s front-line responders and is deeply appreciative for the invaluable role they play in enhancing the public safety of our campus community.”

The regular testing also coincides with an increased number of cases in the community and surrounding areas. UMass reported three new cases Tuesday, making a total of 124 members of the university community who have tested positive for COVID-19, most of them students living off-campus.

Bockelman and Nelson expressed appreciation for the university’s partnership with the town.

“What this will do is it will help maintain our relationship, and we’re going to protect our people as we go out to protect theirs,” Nelson said of the testing program, “so it’s a win-win across the board.”

The testing program does not have a set start date yet, but Nelson hopes to have the program running within the week.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at
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