Red Cross helps firefighters battle flames instead of COVID-19

By Russ Courtney, Communications Manager
In late June, a plane full of firefighters touched down in Sudbury to help protect communities in Northern Ontario.

Shortly after the team stepped off the aircraft, the Canadian Red Cross ensured their task would not be more difficult than usual.

Battling forest fires has always been challenging, but once again this year, there is the added complication of COVID-19, which could, quite literally, spread like wildfire among those working in close quarters.

Red Cross personnel in Sudbury administered over 80 COVID-19 rapid tests in just two and half hours, providing certainty that the firefighters and support staff who landed in Ontario were not at risk of spreading the virus.

Three men standing in personal protective equipment including gowns, masks and gloves
Red Cross personnel in Sudbury, from left to right: Joseph Attai, Aaron Ferretti, and Charles Kalandala Kashala

The Sudbury site is one of more than a dozen across Northern Ontario where Red Cross testing teams are working in support of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to provide Panbio Rapid Antigen screening, which returns test results in just 15-20 minutes.

The quick turnaround can help the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry catch COVID cases that could otherwise go undetected.

“Firefighters are working prolonged periods in fairly isolated conditions,” says Red Cross Operations Lead Tyler Beaton. “If an asymptomatic COVID-19 case actually made their way into a base camp or made their way onto an aircraft or helicopter, obviously the risks of spread and not being able to contain the virus is quite high.”

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry is providing the rapid tests, administered by more than 30 Red Cross public health specialists and emergency care workers. The testers are being assisted by nearly 20 additional personnel, including Public Health Lead Neyra Adel, who helped train the testing teams and ensure they follow the highest level of infection protection and control measures.  

The testing teams have the capacity to administer an estimated 50-60 rapid tests per day, per site. There are 18 testing sites located in Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Haliburton, Cochrane, Timmins, Wawa, North Bay, Hearst, Chapleau, Kenora, Red Lake, Geraldton, Armstrong, Dryden, Sault Ste. Marie, Sioux Lookout, Fort Frances, and Pickle Lake.

Tests are available between one to four days per week at each site, depending on fire activity in the area at the time.

A room full of people in PPE with tables and chairs set up
The Red Cross rapid testing site in Thunder Bay

The testing program will be even more critical if the fire risk increases. A busy fire season means firefighters could be travelling across Northern Ontario more often.

“There has (already) been a lot of movement (and) that really stresses the importance of being tested and making sure you are not carrying anything from sector to sector,” says Tyler.

The tests are voluntary and are administered to firefighters who are not showing COVID-19 symptoms. Testing started June 8th and is expected to continue until the end of August. Red Cross personnel have tested hundreds of firefighters since the program began. All tests have been negative so far.

“It’s been fantastic to be honest,” says Tyler. “The feedback from the ministry has been nothing but incredible.”

Firefighters have been just as grateful.

“Thank you very much for what you’re all doing,” reads one of the dozens of supportive messages left by firefighters at the Sudbury testing site.

“A+ you guys rock,” writes another.

Tyler believes the success of the operation is thanks to the flexibility of the Red Cross.  

“We’ve been able to really get this completely off the ground from scratch in a matter of two weeks,” says Tyler. “From nothing to on the ground in two weeks is a huge feat. I think it speaks volumes to the capabilities that the Red Cross actually has.” 

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