About 10% of front-line workers in Nassau and Suffolk counties, including police, medics and social services employees, were positive for COVID-19 antibodies in a mass testing program officials said showed the effectiveness of personal protective equipment.
The testing of about 10,000 workers in May found positive rates among the workers that were significantly lower than those in other groups, even though the front-line workers likely were among the populations most exposed to the coronavirus, county officials and health care experts said.
For instance, 30% to 45% of the people tested in community health centers in virus hot spots such as Hempstead, Elmont, Freeport and Westbury during June and July were positive for COVID antibodies, Nassau officials said.
The testing, conducted by the counties in partnership with Northwell Health, was intended to "keep the essential services of the counties going," said Mary Mahoney, vice president of emergency management and clinical preparedness at Northwell.
“It was the first data-driven proof we were doing the correct things,” Mahoney said.
"The shift in thinking about how masks work — how masks are so vital — came in part from these early studies of antibodies that showed the general population had higher exposure to Covid than people who wore masks and other forms of PPE," said Nassau County Health Commissioner Dr. Larry Eisenstein.
Nassau County tested 3,917 of their essential workers and found an overall positive rate of 10.5%, while Suffolk tested 6,521 with a positive rate of 9.74%.
County employees signed waivers allowing their information to be used in data collection for research.
Antibody testing to determine if a person has been exposed to the coronavirus, and has some level of immunity, continues to be an important part of restarting in-person activity. Mass testing at colleges and school districts is next, officials say.
Experts say they still learning more about what level of protection antibodies, which are proteins that help fight off infections, provide. What's still unclear is whether antibodies protect people from getting infected again. But for the most part, the test confirms the virus was present in those who had no symptoms or mild ones.
The testing gave officials a snapshot of how widespread the virus was in county departments and whether the counties were offering enough protective equipment and creating safe protocols.
Those tested in May included county first responders who entered homes of COVID-positive patients and social service workers who came into direct contact with clients who were infected, but without symptoms, seeking assistance. The many other county workers who worked from home faced far less risk of exposure.
Thomas Sanginario, 57, a Nassau County police medic who lives in Westbury, said he wasn't surprised he tested positive for antibodies. He knew he had the virus and, while it put him out for weeks, he was relieved he had built up the antibodies.
"This is the job I signed up for," Sanginario said. "I'm hoping I'm immune and I do feel safer. Of course I'm afraid of contracting it again, but it's not just a job, it's my life's work."
Northwell since has offered antibody testing to other controlled groups such as transit workers, and in low-income communities. Programs likely will be expanded to include larger corporations, Mahoney said.
Suffolk Chief Deputy County Executive Lisa Black said in the early days of the pandemic, when supplies of personal protective equipment were low, county officials needed to know if they were missing departments with employees who might not have expected to be exposed to the virus.
“We really wanted to look at the epidemiology to see if there was a cohort that was affected but did not know," Black said. "We didn’t know a lot about the virus at that point. It was important that because we were interacting with the public that we were doing everything right.”
Jerry Laricchiuta, CSEA Long Island regional president, said "we learned from ... front-line workers. If it wasn't for these workers we wouldn't be living the way we are right now — quite comfortably in New York State compared to other states."
Laricchiuta, who represents 44,000 union members in Nassau and Suffolk counties, said he hoped public employees in particular will get priority for further diagnostic and antibody tests for the virus.
"It changes the dynamic when you know people around you had it," Laricchiuta said. "We now know which departments were vulnerable during the surge and, God forbid it comes back here for us, we will know how to protect these essential employees."
Ron Gurrieri, president of Nassau's CSEA Local 830, noted many of his 4,500 members wore personal protective equipment and still contracted the virus.
"The only way we are going to irradiate this disease and protect front-line workers is through a vaccine," Gurrieri said. "Nobody is immune. We had 15 people die from COVID-related illness, the most in the State of New York, and that spanned various job titles. So please tell me how do I protect these workers."