St. Mary’s seven volunteer rescue squads have always used protective gear to prevent the spread of illness, but with higher demand for masks and other such equipment amid the COVID-19 outbreak, squads are running low on supplies.
“We have a supply, but of course, the pandemic is a game changer,” Terri Van Asdlen, supply officer for the Lexington Park Volunteer Rescue Squad, said Monday.
Each of the county’s rescue squads are responsible for procuring their own supplies, including personal protective equipment, or PPE, which is regularly used by first responders.
Before, “during flu season, we usually put a mask on a patient who was sneezing and coughing,” Van Asdlen said.
Now, any call the rescue squad goes on, EMTs wear a surgical mask, according to Van Asdlen, and change into protective gowns, eyewear and wear N-95 respirators if a patient meets certain criteria for symptoms of COVID-19.
“As the cases rise, we’re seeing more cases where we have to wear PPE,” she said. International demand for face masks has greatly increased amid the COVID-19 outbreak, and on Saturday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially encouraged people to use cloth face coverings to slow transmission of the disease from asymptomatic and presymptomatic carriers.
Following that, in accordance with new defense department policy every individual at Naval Air Station Patuxent River property must wear cloth face coverings when they cannot maintain 6 feet social distance, according to a release from the base.
The CDC does not recommend the public’s use of N-95 respirators, which are “critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for health care workers and other medical first responders,” according to the organization’s Saturday fact sheet, instead encouraging homemade filters made from cloth, or old T-shirts and coffee filters. The N-95 respirators do not filter exhaled particles, only inhalable airborne particles, according to county EMS chief Shawn Davidson, who said the respirators are only worn by EMS personnel when a patient shows symptoms of COVID-19, and are never placed on a patient.
The respirators also must be fit-tested against a wearer’s face to be used in a medical setting, Davidson said.
“John Q. Person walking around town in their N-95 is not doing anything,” he said, but regular masks “for the vast majority of people, the vast majority of the time” can prevent transmission by filtering exhaled particles and airborne particles.
For the rescue squads, though, the suppliers are out.
“Everyone in the world is trying to get PPE now,” Van Asdlen said. “It’s just not there.”
Van Asdlen usually purchases protective gear from several medical supply warehouses, which are currently out of stock, and has been searching for retailers who may carry the equipment
“I found a tattoo supply warehouse which may have some in stock,” she said. “We’re doing all sorts of crazy stuff.”
Van Asdlen has been reaching out to local dentist’s offices and nail salons seeking equipment, with many having already donated their supplies, and has been hoping for local businesses to help the volunteer rescue squads in St. Mary’s County.
“If there are dentists offices or nail salons with masks, we would love to have them,” she said.
The county government has been “very proactive” about helping rescue squads access the state’s stockpile of PPE, Davidson said, and a partnership with NAS Pax River has been “very fruitful,” with some organizations connected to the base helping to design and support PPE production. Additionally, many county residents are donating homemade masks, he said.
Some of the cloth masks donated to the rescue squads are given to sick patients who do not require hospitalization, Davidson said, to prevent their transmission to others.