NASCAR to use COVID-19-detecting dogs at Atlanta Motor Speedway

By ZACH DEAN | The Daytona Beach News-Journal | Published: March 16, 2021

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — NASCAR this weekend plans to add a leash to its COVID-19 toolbox.

Officials on Tuesday announced that trained dogs will be used at Atlanta Motor Speedway to detect COVID-19 among essential personnel ahead of Sunday’s Cup Series race.

The procedure will be deployed on a trial basis as a potential first line of at-track defense intended to limit the disease’s spread.

Officials are working with 360 K9 Group for the procedure, which has a training facility in New Smyrna Beach, along with another in Anniston, Alabama.

Two teams of dogs will screen essential personnel, assessing in less than 30 seconds per person whether COVID-19 is present and then alerting their handlers if the disease is detected.

The NBA's Miami Heat started using COVID-19-sniffing dogs to screen guests and employees for home games in January.

“We think that these dogs and this capability is going to allow us to rapidly confirm that all of those people entering the essential footprint on Sunday — that’s race teams, that’s NASCAR officials, that’s the vendors that work inside the garage — all those folks are COVID-free or not,” said Tom Bryant, NASCAR managing director of racing operations.

“The ability to do that has kind of been the math problem that we have continuously tried to solve since March of last year.”

After an alert, those individuals will be isolated and subject to comprehensive secondary screening by the American Medical Response (AMR) Safety Team’s lead physicians to determine their status for Sunday’s race.

The K9 unit will not be used to screen Cup Series drivers or the limited number of fans in the grandstands during Sunday’s trial run.

Bryant, who has been with NASCAR since 2014, saw the benefits of trained K9 units during his time in the Army.

Bryant, a 20-year U.S. Army veteran, said he's witnessed dogs’ efforts to sniff out explosives and firearms in military operations. Dogs have also been involved in isolating the scent of citrus canker — a bacterial disease harmful to crops near his home.

Those efforts have been made with the support of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The 360 K9 Group said that clinical studies have shown that the same bio-detection technology can locate the presence of COVID-19 in humans at an accuracy rate of 98%.

“They are amazing,” Bryant said. “This gives us essentially an ability to test that essential population on race day and know right away that those folks who have cleared this enhanced screening process with a very high degree of confidence are COVID-free.

"We’ll learn from what we do Sunday, and we’ll figure the ways to best employ this capability moving forward to ensure that we’re keeping the population as safe as we can, keeping the least amount of risk in the environment.”

This new screening technique arrives one year after the pandemic shut down NASCAR for 10 weeks. The sanctioning body announced the suspension of the season two days before last year's March 15 race at Atlanta.

Bryant said NASCAR officials continue to track the vaccination status of the industry’s essential personnel and immunization numbers are on a positive trend.

“As much as things are getting better, it’s still very much a challenge,” he said. “So this tool is going to help us as the virus evolves ... we’re evolving with our approach to how we minimize exposure and create the safest possible environment to race.

“You’ve heard the drivers and everybody in the industry talk about the energy and the sense you get and the feeling you get when you’ve got all the fans right there, enjoying the action. That’s what we’re going to get back to, and I’m a big optimist that we’re much closer to getting back to that than we were.

"I’m really excited for the day when that comes, and this is a tool that can help us get closer to that.”

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