Health Care

EMS crews face resupply challenges for gear as precautions step up

Firefighters from the Burlington Fire Department respond to a call on Bank Street in Burlington on Monday. Emergency medical services are seeing a challenge having enough protective equipment. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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At the Regional Ambulance Service in Rutland ambulances are getting washed after each transport, patients are getting asked more questions, and EMTs are donning protective gear more often in the wake of the global COVID-19 outbreak. 

That protective gear, such as masks and gowns, said Jim Finger, who is also president of the Vermont Ambulance Association, is also getting harder to resupply. 

“I’d say we have a normal amount,” Finger said, adding that he doesn’t have an “excess” amount.  

The challenge, Finger said, is that his agency as well as many other rescue and ambulance services around the state haven’t been able to obtain resupplies from their normal vendors due to worldwide demand and supply issues.

As a result, he said, his service and others have submitted requests to the state to tap in the state “strategic” supply of such items.

Asked about the supply issue for protective gear, Dan Batsie, the chief of emergency medical service at the Vermont Department of Health, replied, “That’s the 1,000-pound elephant in the room because it’s a real challenge.” 

He said with every rising level of precaution over COVID-19, the demand for the protective gear increases.

“The supply chains, especially around the Chinese factories that make a lot of this personal protective equipment, have been interrupted,” Batsie said. 

“We’ve been getting call after call after call from organizations saying, ‘We’re trying to replace the PPE that we’re using, but our vendors are telling us June, our vendors are telling us they can’t even give us a delivery date,’” Batsie said. “That’s been a real challenge.” 

He said the state does have a “strategic stockpile” of items, including personal protective equipment. 

“We have a fixed amount,” Batsie said, “Of course there’s a huge demand. On the first day of taking requests, we got 78 requests from hospitals, EMS agencies, law enforcement, fire departments, and primary care and long-term care facilities. Everybody is requesting it.” 

He said the state has had to “prioritize” those requests. 

“I don’t think there is anybody who is saying they have none,” he added.

Also, Batsie said, the state of Vermont, like every other state and territory, has requested assistance from the federal government and the “strategic national stockpile.” That delivery, he said, was expected to arrive in Vermont later Monday.

“That’s going to buffer our supply a little bit,” he said. 

Batsie declined to reveal how much gear is in the state’s strategic stockpile, saying, “We don’t share that information, but we have a good bit.” 

He said the state is also working with the National Guard and businesses on the issue. 

“We’re trying to look across the state and say, ‘Who has these supplies and how can we share them and allocate them to the people who need them the most?’” Batsie said. 

He said he is hopeful that the supply chain will “open up,” with factories possibly reopening in China as well as the federal government working to establish manufacturing capacity in the United States.

“We’re hoping this is a temporary supply chain interruption,” Batsie said. “I hope that people will recognize that we’re doing everything we can, this is a complex challenge.” 

Barre City Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Aldsworth said Monday he ran into the supply issue, too, but has found an answer, at least for now.

“We decided that while we couldn’t get the disposal gowns, we went to the next level of protection for our folks,” he said. “That’s the Tyvex suits with the booties and the hood. We feel that is the most adequate protection right now for our employees.” 

Aldsworth said the department has found a vendor for that gear and now has an “adequate” supply.

“We haven’t had to use a ton, but we have had to use some of them,” he said. 

Batsie said there are roughly 180 ambulance services and rescue squads in the state. 

“That includes both transporting ambulances, of which there is about 90, and non-transporting first response agencies, like small squads who go to the scene first,” he said.

“All across Vermont there are 2,800 Vermonters who staff those ambulances, the vast majority of them are volunteer or part time,” Batsie said. “There are nine agencies that are entirely full time.’ 

Leaders of these services talked Monday of the many extra steps they are taken in response to COVID-19. 

For example, at Regional Ambulance Service in Rutland, Finger said those added steps include closing the ambulance building to the public, washing and cleaning the ambulance after each transport, and taking the temperature of each EMT before the start of each shift.

In addition, Finger said, when arriving at the scene of a call, EMTs are instructed, if possible, to stay at least 6 feet away from the patient while they ask a series of questions, including about their travel history and symptoms.

“If they have signs you don’t want to go up to them until you’ve put on your face shield, your gloves, your gown – you prepare to take care of them,” he said.

Jim Finger, chief executive administrator at Regional Ambulance Service Inc. in Rutland and president of the Vermont Ambulance Association. Photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger

If someone cannot communicate, and if there is no one else there who can help answer the screening questions, Finger said, EMTs will “assume” that the person is positive for COVID-19 and put on the protective equipment and clothing.

‘We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can,” he said. 

Art Groux, executive director of the Bennington Rescue Squad, said his agency is following similar protocols as outlined by Finger in Rutland. 

“It’s making sure that we’re following what the current recommendations are and coming up with staffing plans in the event that this becomes an issue that affects our workforce and their ability to actually report to work,” he said. “That’s probably our biggest concern going forward.”

He said that includes in some cases limiting the number of responders accessing a patient in a home or building where someone may possibly be positive for COVID-19.

“We don’t necessarily need to expose the entire ambulance crew even though they are protected,” he said.

Groux cautioned that while people may see rescue workers wearing protective clothing in handling a patient, it doesn’t mean that the patient has COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, this has a lot of the same symptoms we see with the flu,” he said, adding that may prompt rescue workers to don protective gear.

“Someone may see us in that full gown, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has COVID-19,” he said. “What that means is that there are symptoms that there’s a possibility. We need to make sure our responders are protected.” 

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