COVID Detector Dogs Visit Some Schools to Help Detect the Virus on Surfaces

The Sheriff’s Office has started a program that enlists two young dogs – Huntah and her counterpart, Duke, a yellow lab – to scour the nooks and crannies of 15 Bristol County schools where the scent of the virus may have been left behind.

Since September, dogs have roamed the classrooms, hallways, auditoriums and empty common areas of the Freetown-Lakeville school district, and are now also inspecting schools in Fairhaven and Norton. School and law enforcement officials say dogs provide another layer of protection against COVID-19, as cases continue to rise.

Huntah and Duke were trained last summer as part of a program developed by the Global Forensic and Justice Center at Florida International University, after the sheriff’s office contacted experts and expressed interest in their research.

Dr DeEtta Mills, director of the university’s International Institute for Forensic Research and among the founding researchers of the centre’s Dog Detection Program, said dogs use their wet muzzles to “detect metabolic changes that a person’s body rises to fight “COVID-19.

“An analogy would be the change in body odor that we humans can detect when someone is training hard,” she said via email. “’Body odor’ changes because, through exercise, our bodies metabolize differently. The smell changes in a person infected with COVID-19 because the body activates different defense pathways in the body to fight the disease; The smell of COVID-19 is unique to those who are infected. “

With their ultra-sensitive noses, dogs can detect the virus with great accuracy – around 97%, according to a double-blind, peer-reviewed study published by CRF researchers last year.

“If they miss it, it’s usually a false positive in that they alert like a positive blow but there is nothing there,” she said.

Law enforcement officials have long turned to dogs for their keen sense of smell to detect drugs, explosives, and illegal foods and plants. They are also used to detect insects and other pests.

Mills, who worked closely with the sheriff’s office, said the dogs had been trained over several months using a “training aid” made from masks worn by people infected with COVID -19. Ultraviolet light is used to deactivate the virus, rendering it harmless, but its scent remains, she said.

“When the dog finds the positive mask, he is taught to sit down to signal the owner that it is a positive sample. When they alert, they get their favorite toy or treat as a reward, ”Mills said. “For them the whole process is a fun game of hide and seek. They are only rewarded if they alert correctly and since they are so “nuts” for their toy or treat, they learn quickly.

For Huntah, it’s his favorite ball.

Dogs are not used directly on humans. But dogs have often identified the presence of the scent of the virus inside schools and other public buildings, said Jonathan Darling, public information officer for the sheriff’s office.

“For example, the dogs struck in a few places at the Lycée Régional Apponequet [this week] and a few places at Norton Middle School, ”he said. “We hit lockers, weight rooms, offices and other places in schools, police departments and other buildings.”

When a location is identified, school officials are notified so the area can be cleaned and further disinfected, Darling said. They can also use the information when planning classroom and auditorium uses for students.

Darling said the dogs are used strictly for examining surfaces and, while accurate, they are not a substitute for a COVID-19 test.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the “primary mode” of people contract the coronavirus through exposure to respiratory droplets.

“It is possible for people to become infected through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects (fomites),” the CDC website says, “but the risk is generally considered low.”

Yet if a dog detects an odor on a student’s desk, school officials “might try to identify the student (s). [that sat there] and could tell the nurse or parents “and counsel for testing,” Darling said.

Superintendents in each district have contacted the sheriff’s office about the program. Fairhaven Public Schools Superintendent Tara Kohler said it has helped students and teachers “feel more confident in their surroundings” and know that administrators are exhausting all options so that they can attend school. safe school.

Kohler said one of the dogs recently detected an odor on a set of lockers. After cleaning them, the school informed the parents of the students who use them so they can keep an eye out for any symptoms.

“It’s only been a few weeks with us, but it’s really promising in my opinion,” she said. “It’s an interesting additional mechanic that has the potential to get us back to normal, more quickly.”

Douglas, Huntah’s handler, said the dogs were a plus for the students as well.

“It’s good on that side too, to make the children smile,” he said.

Steve Annear can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on twitter @steveannear.

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