COVID-19 Antibody Study: San Francisco Fire Department



First responders, including firefighters and paramedics, risk exposure to COVID-19 as a part of their jobs. To better quantify this risk and the effectiveness of workplace protections, more than 1,200 San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) active members were tested for antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in June 2020. This study was particularly important because there is relatively little data about the effects of COVID-19 on urban front-line workers.


According to study coordinator Megan Grant, MS, RN, NP, “One of the really important aspects of this study was the interdisciplinary nature of our team. We had clinicians and researchers from the University of California San Francisco collaborating with the medical team and firefighters with support from Local 798 International Association of Firefighters and the firefighters’ credit union. The firefighters initially approached UCSF, which allowed us to build a really collaborative team.”


About Antibody Testing:


Antibodies indicate an immune response to an infection and their presence is determined through a blood test. A positive antibody test result means the participant was exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, and recovered from the infection. Antibodies typically protect against future infections; however, it is not yet clear how long antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 remain in the blood, or how long protection may last. At this time, those who have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies should assume there is still some risk of future COVID-19 infection and practice precaution.


Study Results:


Participants represented two-thirds of the entire SFFD, including firefighters, paramedics, chiefs, captains, lieutenants, inspectors, investigators, technical specialists, and administrative staff from different locations throughout San Francisco.


Almost half of the participants (48%) reported likely or confirmed contact (and sometimes repeated contact) with COVID-19 infected patients. Antibodies showing previous COVID-19 infection were present in only 3 of the 1,233 tested (0.2 %). This was slightly lower than the antibody prevalence in members of the Bay Area community as a whole at the time (1%).


Personal protective equipment (PPE), particularly the use of respiratory protection on medical calls, greatly increased in the SFFD after the March 18th Shelter in Place order and is thought to be a large contributing factor to these results.


About the Team:


This study was conducted by COEH affiliates at the University of California San Francisco and funded by the San Francisco Fire Credit Union. It is our hope this study not only provides much needed data for assessing the impact of COVID-19 on frontline workers, but also demonstrates the effectiveness and importance of health and safety precautions to prevent COVID-19 infection.


Additional details about the study can be found at: https://sffd19.ucsf.edu/.


The Center for Occupational and Environmental Health will also be hosting a presentation on Respiratory Protection & Seroprevalence of SARS-CoV-2 Among San Francisco Firefighters and Emergency Responders with Megan Grant, RN, NP, University of California San Francisco, and Arlene Nunez, BS, MA, Firefighter & Former Infectious Disease Scientist, San Francisco Fire Department at our annual symposium: COEH Builds Bridges: Interdisciplinary & Ethical Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic