PORTSMOUTH – Risking potential exposure to the coronavirus with every emergency call, city firefighters received community support Thursday through donations of personal protective equipment.
A collection drive held by the Portsmouth Fire Department, which will take place again on Friday and Saturday, solicited additional PPE supplies as the COVID-19 infection is expected to spread.
The equipment is essential for first responders and health care workers to protect themselves in their public-facing jobs, but communities are currently seeing a severe shortage – at hospitals especially – as the number of COVID-19 patients rises.
“We want to collect what we can and make sure the whole health care and first responder community of Portsmouth is going to get what they need,” said Fire Chief Todd Germain.
New Hampshire’s congressional delegation on Wednesday sent a letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter Gaynor, expressing their concern over the agencies’ allegedly poor response to New Hampshire’s call for medical supplies, including personal protective equipment and ventilators.
The delegation cited delays in delivering supplies, providing expired equipment, dispersing materials that can’t be used in most medical settings due to allergens, and sending shipments of resources in bits and pieces instead of full allotments, which prevents health care providers on the front lines from being able to prepare and plan for the surge of patients they’ll see in the coming days and weeks.
The delegation alleged the 16,677 gloves the N.H. Department of Health and Services DHHS received were all latex gloves, which are unusable in the medical setting due to latex allergies.
In addition, they alleged, between the first two shipments combined, the agencies provided only 28% of the total number of N95 respirator masks originally requested, one-third of nasal swabs needed, approximately 26% of the original request for surgical masks, and zero ventilators.
First-responders are disproportionately vulnerable to the coronavirus, as their essential service duties put them at a greater risk through their daily interactions.
Portsmouth Fire Prevention Officer Chad Putney said they’re treating every person they respond to as a possible coronavirus case by taking the necessary precautions.
Germain said he currently has four firefighters in quarantine – three who were exposed to probable COVID-19 patients, and one with a family member feeling ill.
Germain said the Fire Department currently has adequate supplies for its typical operations. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit and “everybody in the country started looking for the same thing,” he said, “everybody’s supply chain has come to a halt."
Donations needed include sterile and non-sterile gloves (latex-free preferred) hand sanitizer, bleach bottles or sprays, bleach wipes, rubbing alcohol, eye protection and goggles, clear face shields, masks, respirator masks, PAPR respirators, disposable gowns, shoe covers, and biohazard bags. All donations must be unused.
“We’re treating this as a long-term event where we may not get more PPE from our providers,” Germain said.
All 911 callers are being screened as to whether they or anyone in their direct environment is positive for COVID-19 or exhibiting symptoms, and that information is then being relayed to the first responders before they arrive, Germain said.
“All of the patients that we encounter are getting a mask to wear themselves,” Germain said. “It doesn't matter if it's a broken ankle, they’re getting a mask.”
The Portsmouth Fire Department on Thursday alone fielded four to five calls from people reporting flu-like symptoms. Germain encouraged individuals to reach out to their primary care doctor first before contacting emergency services.
For most people, COVID-19 results in only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. People with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover, according to the World Health Organization.
Putney and fellow Fire Prevention Officer Shawn Wheeler said they recalled emergency preparation for the ebola virus outbreak in 2014, but nothing comparable to the precautions they’ve had to take for coronavirus.
“Don’t hoard PPE,” Wheeler said when asked his message to the public.
“Be open and honest when you call 911 about any symptoms,” Putney said. “Stay home, practice social distancing, hand washing. I know people say it, but it matters.”
Germain identified disposable gowns and masks as the top two items on his department’s wish list – as they’re the hardest to find right now.
Thursday’s drive saw a steady flow of cars, with individuals donating vinyl gloves, disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer, spray bottles, shoe guards and more. Supplies will be split by the city fire, police and health departments.
Portsmouth City Manager Karen Conard said this week the Fire Department is taking the temperature of each firefighter at the start of every shift.
The PPE collection drive is taking place in the Portsmouth Indoor Pool parking lot next to the high school, from 1 to 4 p.m. again on Friday and Saturday.