25 Investigates: State’s first responders face potential shortage of critical safety supplies amid coronavirus crisis

State's first responders face potential shortage of critical safety supplies amid coronavirus crisis

BOSTON — Just like doctors and nurses, first responders are on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic. But as 25 Investigates discovered, emergency medical technicians with fire departments and ambulance companies are dealing with a shortage of personal protective equipment [PPE].

Items like gloves, gowns, safety goggles and facemasks have been difficult to acquire through private vendors, with many facing backorders.

Over the last couple of weeks, those vendors have been unable to keep up with demand, and critical shortages are expected in the weeks and months ahead, according to various fire departments 25 Investigates’ Ted Daniel spoke to for this story.

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“I have 20 years on the job as a firefighter and this is truly something uncharted,” said Richard MacKinnon, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts [PFFM], a union that represents the majority of firefighters across the state, including more than 1500 in Boston.

MacKinnon says several of his members are having difficulty getting the supplies they need.

In Washington state, 34 firefighters and police officers were quarantined after being exposed to coronavirus at a nursing home. The outbreak at the Life Care Center of Kirkland began weeks ago and is linked with a least 29 deaths.

“Quite frankly there is a shortage of gear or PPE, whether its gowns, face shields,” said Chris Laporte, a shift commander at Fallon Ambulance in Quincy. “Eventually we are going to have a shortage of gloves just as volume picks up.”

Fallon Ambulance serves Dedham, Brookline and Milton and provides transport for numerous hospitals. Employees are now required to don PPE – gowns, gloves, goggles or face shields, and a specific type of face mask known as N95 - if a patient has flu-like symptoms or a history of coronavirus exposure.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, all these items were single-use, but now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is allowing limited use of N95 face masks.

“The supply chain has become a challenge,” said Kevin Mont, the director of EMS operations at Fallon. “At Fallon Ambulance we are in good shape right now. But, as this continues, the supply chain has slowed. You are looking at a month down the road [in terms of supplies] potentially through regular vendors.”

Communities that run out of protective gear may have to turn to the state or federal government for help. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services operates the Strategic National Stockpile, “the largest supply of potentially life-saving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for use in a public health emergency severe enough to cause local supplies to run out.”

“We’re confident that working with our state agencies that we will get the gear that our firefighters need to respond to these calls,” said PFFM’s MacKinnon. “But it is a grave concern. Right now, we’re hearing from our locals that there just isn’t enough.”

Hospitals are experiencing a similar problem. Last Tuesday, 25 Investigates reported that some Massachusetts hospitals are asking emergency room nurses to reuse N95 medical masks in an effort to mitigate shortages.

Late Thursday the state received a shipment of supplies from the national stockpile, but it was only 10% of what was requested.