News 04.06.20

Exoneree Brandon Moon Fixes COVID-19 Testing Equipment in Utah

"I love that what I do uses DNA to help heal people and save lives."

By Alicia Maule

Brandon Moon at his job at BioFire Diagnostics in Utah. Photo courtesy of Brandon Moon.

Former Innocence Project client Brandon Moon is a technician at BioFire Diagnostics in Utah, where his work has pivoted to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic. Since being exonerated exactly 15 years ago on April 6, 2005, Moon has been working as a technician. Right now, he is working to fix equipment that uses DNA to test for viruses and diseases.

His company has also developed a test to determine whether COVID-19 is present in a patient. Moon talked to the Innocence Project’s Digital Engagement Director, Alicia Maule, about what it’s like to work on COVID-19 tests, the safety precautions he’s taking and why compensation for exonerees is more important now than ever. 

Call your governor to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons

I’ve been a technician my whole life. I worked as a technician in the Army, and even when I was in prison, I worked in unit maintenance. Since I’ve been out of prison, I’ve worked at a casino and Garmin (a technology company) for a while as a technician. Then, I moved to Utah and applied for a job at BioFire — it was a small company back then.

I think what got me the job was my knowledge of DNA, which is what I used to prove my innocence and get out of prison. Because of this, I could understand what was going on in the test. I love that what I do uses DNA to help heal people and save lives.

I think what got me the job was my knowledge of DNA, which is what I used to prove my innocence and get out of prison.

The piece of equipment I am working on now runs a DNA test for viruses and diseases. We also had to develop one for COVID-19 and with it we can give a pretty accurate positive or negative result. Now, as more instruments are out in the field being used to test for COVID-19 as we see more cases, they will break down and then get sent to us, and we fix them.

But people don’t really know about the work I do. When the coronavirus pandemic first reached Utah four weeks ago or so, my daughter Anna was sick and I took her to the emergency room and the doctors said, “You do what? How come I didn’t know BioFire did this thing?”

I love that what I do uses DNA to help heal people and save lives.

It’s kind of specialized. The people who need to know, know. The general public doesn’t really know about it. But most of the people who understand what’s been going on knew this pandemic was going to happen right from the start, when we first heard about the COVID-19 outbreak in China. However, we needed to wait until we had biological specimens before we could work on them. We needed scientists to isolate the genomes, so we could develop a test.

We had tests for three or four kinds of coronaviruses, including SARS and MERS, which were previous outbreaks of viruses in the same family and were also deadly. But to distinguish those viruses from this particular virus, we needed more data. Here, on the service team, we knew we would need to ramp up our work for when we got this data.

My team lost two people to the instrument production team because they needed help building more testing instruments That means I am working with less people, yet seeing an increase in work. We are working a minimum of eight hours overtime a week and some guys are putting in as much as 20 hours of overtime a week. Each step takes a lot of time. I think we run about 30 hours total time from receiving it to shipping it back. 

On average, my team takes about 11 hours to service each instrument. I typically work on instruments that have the worst problems and often take longer to repair. Working on the most challenging instruments is how you learn the technology the best.

The device that runs the coronavirus tests can run 12 tests at the same time, and each test takes about 45 minutes to deliver a result, not including the time it takes the nurse to collect samples from the patient.

I want people to know that we’re trying to get stuff out there to do COVID-19 tests. But my advice to people is: Don’t panic. We’ll get through this.

My advice to people is: Don’t panic. We’ll get through this.

Practice social distancing, sanitary measures, wash your hands more than you normally would. Wash your hands before you touch your face or food. I know we hear it every day, but these are the things that are going to help the most. If you go out, wash your hands and wash your body. It doesn’t hurt to change clothes. Don’t be panicky — you don’t have to be a germaphobe to survive this.

Personally, I have always practiced good sanitary procedures because of the time I spent in prison, dealing with illness. That’s what got me most prepared for this.

When you see a guard coughing on everybody, you avoid that person and watch what they are doing. You do everything you can to avoid getting sick while you’re in there — but there isn’t really anywhere to go. So, the pandemic is going to be bad in prison. We went through the swine flu (H1N1) and a couple other outbreaks while I was locked up, so I really fear for those people still in there. There’s going to be people that die in there.

I’m lucky that I have a very flexible work schedule. I can shift my hours at work to be home when I need to be with my two daughters, but my wife has less flexibility because she works at the post office, which is considered an essential service. When she gets home, she takes off her clothes and showers before she does anything else. For me, I am in a controlled environment where we have to wear masks because we deal with all these snippets of DNA, which can get everywhere.

We are constantly washing our hands to avoid contaminating the main building and our tests so we don’t get false positives. We are constantly scrubbing our desks with bleach. Normally, we wash our hands 10-15 times a day anyway, and now we are doing it even more.

I’m also lucky to have my job, because I still have received no compensation from the state of Texas for my years of wrongful conviction. When I first got out, the compensation was $25,000 per year capped at $250,000 — the equivalent of 10 years, though I spent 17 years wrongfully convicted. The law has since been changed, and compensation went up to $50,000 per year, capped at $500,000, but I am not eligible for the current compensation package — which I still do not think is adequate — even though I am one of the people who fought to get the current compensation passed.

I have filed a federal lawsuit, which is still pending because the State is claiming that the people who put me in prison are immune from being sued.

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