Adams County receives inadequate shipment of masks from state

Frontline workers' health could be jeopardized
Published: Aug. 11, 2020 at 11:45 AM CDT
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HASTINGS, Neb. (KSNB) - For months, Nebraskans have leaned on first responders and frontline workers to keep them safe in the midst of a pandemic. Now, it appears local counties are having trouble keeping the workers safe as well.

Adams County Emergency Manager Ron Pughes says requests for new CDC-approved face masks from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services date back to February during the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, in the middle of August, it’s a request Pughes says he’s still waiting to see fulfilled correctly.

“We have received many, many deliveries of product that has proven to be not recommended by the CDC, not NIOSH approved, counterfeit masks,” Pughes said. “A huge majority, if not all of this product has come directly from China.”

When each shipment arrives, the county examines the masks to make sure they are on the approved list provided by the CDC. However, to this point, none of the shipments have met that standard and had been shipped back to the state.

“A lot of the products that we did receive kind of came with a caveat that it’s better than nothing, which to me is a dangerous course of action when you’re talking about our providers who protect us,” Pughes said.

Fortunately in Adams County, they already had a private supply of masks they have been using in the meantime. Now, with continued shipments of non-CDC approved masks, the county’s first responders are having to clean the masks using UV sanitation before re-purposing them throughout the area.

“We have been relying on expired masks, which still are better than nothing,” said Hastings Police Chief Adam Story. “And again, the term medical grade - we have the necessity for medical grade masks because we are first responders who are with known COVID-positive people and/or certain exposures like with our death investigations and stuff that we have.”

Pughes says it’s only a matter of time before those masks degrade below surgical grade and first responders will be more exposed than ever.

“As time goes by here, that becomes concerning because those masks are wearing their limits when it comes to the amount of times you can clean them and process them to where it might be a thing where we’re going to have to start looking into masks that don’t meet the standards,” Pughes said. “What that would mean would be a triple-up mask, using three at a time, using different provisions, extra protection for covering items that are supposed to be protecting us as a frontline defense.”

HPD is already considering turning to a two-mask approach, while Hastings Fire and Rescue Chief Brad Starling says they’ve considered combining both the shipped masks with surgical masks in hopes that they can provide the same support as an N-95 respirator mask if paired together. However, when push comes to shove, even with alterations both the police department and fire department are running out of time and resources.

“If we used CDC best practice recommendations, we’ve got probably less than a week of supply left, but we can stretch that out to another 30 days,” Starling said.

Pughes says he and other emergency managers from the South Heartland District Health Department have reached out to the state about the issue and have yet to hear back. We at Local4 also reached out to the DHHS, and they denied any interview requests, but they did reply to the masks in question in a written statement, which said:

“The term surgical grade and medical grade are different terms. It is true, the masks that were provided by the state are not surgical grade in that they are not authorized to be used during medical surgeries. However, these masks are fully authorized for use as an N95 respirator, which meets all requirements for first responders and medical personnel coming into direct contact with a potentially COVID-19 positive patient.”

Pughes, meanwhile, says he will not be distributing these masks to the first responders in the county because they do not appear on the list of CDC-approved masks for first responders.

While Adams County in particular is still relying on a private supply since the pandemic began, Pughes expects other counties aren’t as lucky. He went as far to say he believes there are likely first responders in all parts of Nebraska who are not using adequate equipment while battling COVID-19.

“On a professional assumption, I would say that some of these larger counties that have a higher response rate that are burning through their masks quicker because of their numbers and sheer volume of COVID response - absolutely I would say there is an issue across Nebraska when it comes to what the state is delivering,” Pughes said.

For first responders in the field like paramedics, firefighters and police officers, Chief Starling says he’s just hoping for clarification at this point.

“Well, at the end of the day, we’ll have to use the best option that we have, and if the best option that we have is the K-N95 mask, then that’s fine,” Starling said. “I just want to get the correct information from those who are providing that equipment so that we can be prepared for that.”

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