The nerve center of that effort is a garage in an industrial section of Northeast Washington, where Glover found himself Tuesday morning. He had just wrapped up a 24-hour shift, much of it spent transporting patients suffering coronavirus symptoms from their homes to hospitals. Instead of going home to his wife, he volunteered to stay at this garage for an extra 12-hour shift, doing the work that has become essential to keeping D.C.'s first responder fleet going: cleaning ambulances.
The District purchased two top-of-the-line decontamination machines and put them into service March 21, two weeks after the first case was reported in the city. Now, with more than 1,200 people confirmed to have the illness in D.C. and city leaders forecasting a much worse toll ahead, the machines have been run nearly 400 times, blasting ambulances clean as fast as they can so they can get back on the streets.
The machines, manufactured by the British company Bioquell, run about $30,000 each, Deputy Fire Chief James Hanson said. He said the District has four more on order.
The garage on Adams Place NE, normally a quiet home to older emergency vehicles that the department holds in reserve for a major catastrophe, has transformed into a bustling hub of activity akin to the world’s most high-tech, extra-cautious carwash.
On Tuesday morning, as Glover was beginning his shift, Capt. R. Mark St. Laurent, a retired Army aviator and longtime paramedic who has taken charge of the carwash operation, was opening the door to an ambulance, sticking a handheld device inside and turning his head away.
The Bioquell machines — each one about the size of a mini-fridge, plus two fans a bit smaller than a microwave — use hydrogen peroxide to sterilize the insides of the ambulances. Every time a potentially contaminated vehicle enters the garage, fire department personnel stick a Bioquell machine inside and then use tape to seal closed every window, door and vent. The machine registers the temperature and humidity, determines the amount of hydrogen peroxide it needs to spray and then sends aerosol particles everywhere. Once the chemicals sit for about 10 minutes — long enough to break down the cells of pathogens — fans whir inside, helping the hydrogen peroxide break down into just water and oxygen.
St. Laurent was testing for remaining hydrogen peroxide levels, as he craned his neck away from the ambulance door. Hydrogen peroxide is meant to kill whatever’s alive — good for getting rid of viruses, but bad for healthy lungs if inhaled.
This stuff, St. Laurent says, is 500 times as strong as the H2O2 your school nurse might have put on a scraped knee, the kind that bubbled and foamed as it cleaned cuts.
His meter beeped: Still too much inside the cab. He slammed the door shut again, slapping back in place the “Danger: Hydrogen Peroxide Vapor. Do Not Enter” sign on the door.
The purpose of this facility is to preserve a safe work environment for D.C.'s first responders, some of whom have come down with coronavirus because of their proximity to the pathogen. As of Monday, 34 members of the fire department had tested positive. One of them visited the decontamination garage Tuesday, his first day back at work after 14 days out sick.
“The whole system is working,” Fire and EMS Chief Gregory Dean said when he visited the garage. “It doesn’t work if we have members getting sick and they can’t come to work.”
On the police force, 23 have tested positive. St. Laurent said his facility has decontaminated two police cruisers. Once he gets the four additional machines, he hopes to clean many more police cars.
Everyone working at the garage has volunteered to work overtime, putting in 12-hour shifts sanitizing ambulances on top of their regular shifts as EMTs and paramedics to avoid taking time away from their medical duties during the crisis. That includes St. Laurent, who tries to take extra precautions so he doesn’t bring home the virus to his wife, who has leukemia.
Ambulances come in immediately after transporting a patient suspected of having the coronavirus. St. Laurent is also encouraging them to come every five days, even if officials don’t know the vehicles have been exposed to the virus, because it is so prevalent among patients being transported to emergency rooms now.
Previously, crews themselves mostly cleaned the ambulances, using rags and disinfectant right after they dropped a patient at the hospital. Now that the department owns the machines, St. Laurent says he hopes every ambulance will be disinfected quarterly, even after the crisis passes.
Minutes after his first check, St. Laurent stuck his meter in the ambulance again and got the all-clear. All of the powerful cleaning chemicals had broken down. He climbed back into the cab with a new test strip, this one designed to turn a deeper or lighter shade of blue, depending on how effective the cleaning has been.
Ordinary home Lysol kills 99.9 percent of biological pathogens. These test strips start at 99.99 percent.
“On a bad day,” St. Laurent said, the strips indicate 99.9999 percent of pathogens killed. On average, 99.999999 percent. Tuesday morning, the blue lines were just below average — good enough to get the ambulance back in action.
The crew, who had been waiting inside the garage while staff laundered all of their clothes and sanitized their belongings, climbed back on board and drove out of the garage and onto the streets. St. Laurent checked his watch: 10:44 a.m. The ambulance spent two hours and three minutes in the cleaning bay, a bit faster than average.
Three minutes after the 390th ambulance drove away, the 391st pulled into the bay doors.
The staff sprang into action again. One firefighter rushed to the door holding flip-flops for each of the two crew members inside. He instructed them to leave everything they could inside the cab. Their iPhones, their belts, their shoes, their work shirts, their keys — it would all get decontaminated inside by the aerosol blaster.
The firefighters emerged and went straight to a sink to wash their hands and faces. They then headed upstairs to a shower. Staff whisked away their clothes to the laundry machine downstairs, and the firefighters dressed in sweatpants and sweatshirts pulled from neat piles.
While the EMTs were showering, Glover was in his hazmat suit again, climbing into their contaminated ambulance. In a lengthy and precise ballet, he opened every cabinet, unzipped bags of medical equipment, stripped the stretcher of its padding — exposing as many surfaces as he could so they’d all be cleaned when the chemicals start spraying.
Into the truck went the Bioquell machine.
Glover had been working for 28 hours, first riding ambulances, then cleaning them. He still had another eight hours on his shift.
“I’ll sleep good tonight,” he said, putting his own Tyvek suit and goggles inside the contaminated ambulance before shutting the door.
The suit would emerge clean, ready for him to do it all over again.