Law enforcement officials in Massachusetts are using four-legged officers to sniff out COVID-19 much in the same way they look for heroin, explosives and other dangerous items.
The Bristol County Sheriff’s Office announced its coronavirus-detection K-9 team Thursday, saying it’s the first law enforcement group in the country to utilize dogs trained to detect the virus.
“Bristol County and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have come so far since the pandemic started last year,” Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson said in a statement. “Today, festivals are happening, restaurants are full and concert venues are packed. We’ve made so much progress, and our new COVID-19 detection program is one way the people of Bristol County can stay ahead of the curve.”
Like drugs and weapons, COVID-19 has a unique odor, which two Sheriff’s Office canines are trained to find. The dogs – Huntah and Duke — graduated training Wednesday. They are stepsiblings who were born two weeks apart with the same father but different mothers, officials said.
The detection program was developed by Florida International University’s International Forensic Research Institute, which used a similar program for dogs detecting fungus in crops and adapted it to COVID detection.
The school uses dogs to detect COVID-19 on its campus.
“This is all science,” Sheriff Capt. Paul Douglas said. “This program was developed by professors, doctors and scientists at FIU, and we couldn’t be more proud or excited to execute it here in Bristol County.”
As part of the training, FIU used medical masks worn by COVID-19 patients. An ultraviolet system was used to kill the contagious portion on the mask but still leave the odor. The Sheriff’s office is working with the New Bedford Fire Department and EMS providers on acquiring masks worn by COVID patients for future use in training.
The dogs can also detect advanced variants such as the Delta variant.
“It’s best to think of it as a decontamination tool,” Douglas said. “The dogs can detect the COVID odor on a counter or table if it was recently touched by a COVID-positive individual, or even detect the odor on a tissue used by someone with COVID.”
In the coming months, Huntah and Duke will also be trained in locating missing people.