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'First line of defense' EMTs worried they're running out of masks as virus outbreak continues

Virus Outbreak New York Hospitals
Posted at 9:19 PM, Mar 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-25 12:23:42-04

NEW YORK — While New York hospitals are quickly running out of protective equipment amid the coronavirus outbreak, one union leader says so are first responders on the front lines.

Oren Barzilay, president of Uniformed EMTs, Paramedics and Fire Inspectors with Local 2507, is worried EMTs are being forgotten as they race to replenish their supplies before it's too late.

PIX11 was told FDNY EMTs go through about 5,000 N95 masks when they respond to calls each day and calls are up 20%. If they don't get new masks soon, they could run out by the end of the week, PIX11 was told. It would put both EMTs and those in need at risk.

"Our situation right now is pretty much dire," Barzilay said.

FDNY Deputy Commissioner Frank Dwyer disputed that EMTs use 5,000 masks per day, though he did not provide another figure. Calls, according to Dwyer, are up 5% year-to-date.

So far, 50 FDNY members, including firefighters, EMTs and civilian workers, have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Dwyer. PIX11 was initially told 50 members of the EMT unit were positive for coronavirus, with one person hospitalized and hundreds more showing symptoms.

Barzilay argued that EMTs need the equipment first because they are the “first line of defense.”

"We're the ones who are dropping off patients at hospitals or other medical facilities that people are asking us to take them,” he said. “So for anybody to get it before us doesn't make any sense."

At a time when EMTs should be strengthening protocols and protections, Barzilay said, the FDNY is about to lower its standards because they're running out of N95 masks.

"The department, however, because it's running low, is suggesting that people use it multiple times, which is unacceptable," he said.

If they run out of N95 masks, the FDNY wants EMTs to switch to a less protective surgical mask, according to Barzilay.

Another spokesman for the FDNY said in a statement the department is following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health officials on when EMTS should wear N95 masks.

EMTs should only wear N95 masks during aerosol generating procedures, according to the FDNY spokesman. Surgical face masks should be used for every call with a patient showing symptoms of cough, fever and/or respiratory issues, the spokesman said. Masks are not required for any other type of call, such as trauma.

The department is trying to manage low supply affecting health care workers, including EMTs, the best it can and will continue to use the best available personal protective equipment for its members, the spokesman said.

During an interview with PIX 11 on Monday, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro acknowledged the increased risk for EMTs out in the field.

"Social distancing in ambulances and fire trucks is not possible," he said.

While there has been no official statement regarding the masks from the FDNY, Nigro also acknowledged that it's in everyone's interest to protect the men and women on the front lines.

"We need every first responder in this city to be healthy going forward," said Nigro.

If they do run out of masks, Barzilay said EMTs have full body protective equipment they can wear out on calls, but the FDNY would have to sign off on it first.

Everyone involved is hoping it doesn't come to that.