Rescue Squad PPE

James Hill, a member of the Princeton Rescue Squad and member of the Princeton City council, demonstrates wearing personal protective equipment at the Princeton Rescue Squad

PRINCETON — Local first responders have dealt with windstorms, flooding and blizzards, but responding to a pandemic is making them think about future measures such as stockpiling much sought after masks and other personal protection equipment.

Health care providers have been seeking out and improvising protective equipment such as N-95 masks ever since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic gripped the nation. Dealing with the crisis has been a learning experience, and one outcome being considered is stockpiling personal protective equipment (PPE).

“I would hope we could do that,” County Commissioner Greg Puckett said. “I would say that every county needs to have a stockpile. One of the things that the virus has taught us that we need to expand preparedness for the worst-case scenario. We expect tornadoes, we expect windstorms, we expect stuff like that, but we didn’t expect a pandemic.”

Representatives of local law enforcement agencies, the Mercer County Commission, hospitals, clinics, municipalities, rescue squads and other entities have been meeting each Monday via a telephone conference. The availability of PPE supplies and whether to see about stockpiling some when they become more available was a topic at this week’s meeting.

“That’s the good side of the virus. It’s allowed us to look at emergency preparedness and how to work effectively together,” Puckett said.

Local health providers had PPE supplies ready when stay-at-home orders were issued and local testing started, but there were only enough for emergencies which were expected to last a few days and on a local level. Providers now hope to stock up on more PPE products.

“We may try to increase our PPE equipment,” said CEO Linda Hutchens of the Bluestone Health Association, Inc. “Our goal is to try and order equipment so we can have it for the following winter months.”

Bluestone Health’s clinics have, like many other health providers, been low on N-95 masks.

“That’s always been an issue,” she said Wednesday. “We actually got some face shields ordered. They’re coming from WVU, and you know hand sanitizer. We are very low on that, but we did order some today from a place in the northern part of West Virginia. It’s a distillery.”

Establishing a countywide PPE stockpile would help health providers be better prepared for future outbreaks, Hutchens said. The Bluestone clinics had some supplies on hand, but not in the quantities needed for dealing with a pandemic.

“We had a little PPE stuff because of our emergency plan where we have to keep so much, but we didn’t have anything like what we needed,” she recalled.

The Bluestone clinics have been offering drive-through testing, but none are scheduled currently because not as many people are using them. Using drive-through testing doesn’t consume as much protective equipment as coming into a clinic.

“We’re not doing drive-throughs right now because there’s actually been a decrease in the testing at our sites,” Hutchens said. “Some days there’s one (person arriving for a test), other days there’s none.”

Mercer County Emergency Services Director Tim Farley has been watching the availability of N-95 masks and other PPE supplies. All PPE products are still in great demand across the nation.

“Production of those masks on the open market has gotten better, but it’s not great,” he said. “There’s still supplies that are short. You still fight that battle.”

Creating a county stockpile in a central location would help reduce the pressure providers are now experiencing.

“In the event of the next pandemic or whatever we would have, we would have a supply on hand to sort of ease the pain from the shortages we’re having now,” Farley said. “I guess every company is trying to have a stockpile this time forward so we don’t get caught like this again.”

Local clinics, hospitals, rescue squads and other PPE consumers could consider acting together and purchasing supplies in bulk, Puckett stated.

‘It’s an opportunity to get a better price,” Farley said. “We’re still working on how it works out.”

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

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