Getting the gear needed to protect health workers and first responders during the COVID-19 crisis has “been a bit of a struggle,” according to Doug Dodge, Jefferson County disaster and emergency services coordinator
Dodge, who has been co-managing the county’s Unified Health Command along with the Health Department during the health emergency, said the county did receive a box of PPE (personal protective equipment) supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile, but it was small.
The first box from the stockpile contained 180 N95 masks, which may sound like a lot, but divide that between all the facilities and agencies in Jefferson County that are needing supplies — nursing homes, assisted living centers, medical clinics, EMS agencies, fire and law enforcement — and that results in just a handful for each of them even after resource prioritization has been made, said Dodge.
The federal Strategic National Stockpile supplements state and local supplies during a public health emergency, such as COVID-19. It falls under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and has been used to respond to large emergencies, such as hurricanes, floods and public health threats.
A full PPE kit includes M95 masks, gowns, face shields and may also include hand sanitizer, said Dodge, adding that the need for these items changes daily.
M95 masks are specially designed to provide a close facial fit and to filter out 95 percent of very small test particles, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Jefferson County Public Health supervisor Karen Wandel said some masks are designed to be reused, but not those the county has received.
The county can order some supplies, like disposable gloves, but have a hard time obtaining other types of PPE, said Wandel.
“We’ve been told that a larger shipment of masks was received by the state last week, and those are supposed to be pushed out to us this week, so hopefully we will be able to add to the dwindling supplies of our county facilities and agencies shortly,” said Dodge.
Last week, Sen. Steve Daines announced Montana has received 68,000 N95 masks.
Dodge said the struggle to obtain supplies stems mainly from the inability to find certain items, particularly masks and face shields. The demand nationwide is so high that regular supply sources have run dry until very recently, he said, adding that an order was made recently but hasn’t arrived.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed that it will arrive,” he said.
Dodge said the ordering process is also confusing.
The state has tried to help locate supplies, and created an online portal for facilities to request certain PPE should they be unable to find it on their own, he said.
“That ordering process is separate from the National Stockpile distribution, so what we have gotten isn’t necessarily what was requested through the portal,” he said.
“What we received was certainly appreciated, however, no matter how small the amount,” he said.
Dodge said each agency, from the health department to fire and EMS, are ordering PPE and the amount available changes constantly.
“It’s very decentralized,” he said, adding that these facilities can always use more PPE and everyone is working together to procure those items.
Dodge said his agency hosts a coordinated call each week with the county’s long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes, assisted living and the Intensive Behavioral Center in Boulder, to assess the ongoing situation. Meanwhile, other sources have surfaced, said Wandel.
“We recently were able to order hand sanitizer from Headframe Spirits in Butte. DES/DPHHS (Montana Department of Emergency Services/Department of Public Health and Human Services) was also able to distribute hand sanitizer from another state distillery to several agencies/institutions around the county, based on orders we all placed in March,” said Wandel.
When it comes to first responders and PPE, Dodge said most EMS providers have changed the protocol to limit the number of responders going in for an initial assessment. For law enforcement and firefighters, the need for PPE depends on the situation, he said.
Dodge said that his agency does not have a number on the amount of PPE that is needed on a daily basis in Jefferson County.
Initially, a resource tracking and ordering process was set, but it hasn’t been implemented yet because the state decided to work directly with each facility and agency rather than through the Incident Command System set up by each jurisdiction, said Dodge.
“We have not seen a report from the state with that data, but they tell us it will be coming. We could poll those facilities/agencies ourselves, but they are busy enough as it is, and we don’t want to add to their burden,” he said.