DHHS, Adams County at odds over use of “Crisis Capacity” masks

Published: Aug. 13, 2020 at 7:27 PM CDT
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HASTINGS, Neb. (KSNB) - Adams County and the Department of Health and Humans Services are at odds. The state is sending what they confirm are CDC-approved face masks for first responders. However, given the national mask shortage and changes to FDA standards, the county is choosing not to use them.

The state of Nebraska is in what’s called “Crisis Capacity,” which means the supply of viable N-95 respirator masks is depleted. Now, it’s forcing state health agencies like the DHHS to usher in CDC-approved alternatives.

“Right now, we are in Crisis Capacity,” said Felicia Quintana-Zinn, the DHHS Deputy Director of Public Health. “There’s been multiple supply chain issues. There’s been multiple items, whether it’s supplies or PPE, that have become difficult to procure to purchase at several different points throughout this.”

That shortage is leading to masks that read “K-N95″ on them or are straight from China, and according to the DHHS, they can all be found on an “Appendix-A” to the original CDC approved list. They also say the masks are medical grade and are approved for use by first responders under the appendix.

“The K-N95 masks that we are utilizing are authorized, they have been tested, they’re of the highest quality, and I am confident that what we’re providing can do those things,” said Doug Carlson, the Deputy Director of DAS.

However, the state is having a hard time selling that message to Adams County Emergency Manager Ron Pughes.

“For the time being, we’re going to continue to protect ourselves in Adams County with medical grade equipment as long as we possibly can before we subject our users to anything that says non-medical on it, regardless of what kid of list it’s on,” Pughes said.

Right now, agencies like the Hastings Police and Fire Departments are resorting to wearing the same N-95 masks over and over, while using UV sanitation to clean them between uses, but even that practice can only last so long.

“I wish I had a crystal ball and say exactly where we’d be in six months or even three months from now, but I honestly can’t say that for certain,” Quintana-Zinn said.

What’s left is trying to clear up a disconnect between counties and the state, and it’s an effort the DHHS is ready to make.

“I look at it as an opportunity for better communication,” Carlson said. “I’ll take that responsibility to ensure that they understand that this is what the FDA and CDC are telling us, and this is what they’re approving. I don’t view it in a majorative sense. I view it only as an opportunity to provide better communication and help them understand our position on that.”

For Ron Pughes, however, he thinks this issue is much larger than one state or one county.

“It’s a statewide issue, and I think we can go beyond our state lines and say that it’s a nationwide issue,” Pughes said. “There is plenty of data showing that billions and billions of taxpayer dollars are being spent on substandard product that’s going to be sitting in empty warehouses here when we actually do recoup and get the true N-95′s back into production and back into our hands.”

There could be a light at the end of this tunnel though. Pughes announced to his first responders on Thursday that it appears the state has reached a contract with manufacturer Honeywell to make true N-95 masks. Once they’re made, they would be distributed throughout the state.

In the meantime, Pughes is asking his county’s first responders to continue to stretch the supply of N-95 masks that they have and continue to use their UV sanitation practices. If they don’t get new N-95 masks when they absolutely need them, Pughes expects his county will turn to wearing face shields along with masks as an added prevention measure.

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