Winthrop Ambulance Service Chief John Dovinsky tests a positive air pressure respirator March 17. Each of his 48 employees are being trained to utilize the respirator in case of contact with coronavirus patients at the station in Winthrop. Dovinsky started acquiring three different types of respirators several months ago as the outbreak of coronavirus disease emerged in the media. The positive air pressure respirator is the highest level of containment. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Mount Vernon Rescue Director Pat Rawson is concerned.

She said the rescue squad, which also handles calls in Vienna, has very few protective gowns and some N95 masks.

“I have applied twice through the Maine CDC for this equipment,” Rawson said, adding that two members of the department have not been successfully fit-tested with N95 masks. “I have ordered an expensive PAPR respirator for them to use, but we will not receive it for six weeks.”

She also noted that two members of the department are in the high risk category and will not be responding to calls.

“The limited supply of protective equipment we have could easily be depleted after a few calls,” she said. “In addition to my concerns about the dwindling protective equipment, I am concerned about the stress being put on the few EMTs who will be responding to Mount Vernon and Vienna calls.”

Whitefield Fire Chief Scott Higgins said his department’s rescue team is trying to put more procedures in place to handle the outbreak. He said the department is trying to supply them with the best personal protective equipment as possible while information about the virus evolves.

“The main thing we’re stressing to all people is be vigilant in cleaning and keeping this in the back of your mind,” he said. “It seems like everything is changing hourly. We’re just doing the best.”

Somerville Fire Chief Michael Dostie said it’s business as usual for his department, though he heard from Jefferson fire officials, who handle medical calls for Somerville, that response times will be slower because dispatchers and responders will ask more questions before leaving for calls.

In Augusta, Fire Chief Roger Audette, who is also the city’s emergency management director, said last week they had more than 2,000 N95 masks in a supply room before the coronavirus crisis. He said paramedics responding to a call in which someone could be infected with the coronavirus follow strict state guidelines for what they wear to the call, including a gown, goggles, a special mask and booties over their shoes.

“We have, fortunately, a very healthy supply, which we had prior to this hitting,” Audette said. “There are some in the state who don’t have that, but we’re set for right now.”

But he said that equipment will run out if public safety workers have to wear it to every call. So now, when someone calls 911 seeking help in an emergency, dispatchers ask questions to try to determine the nature of the call and whether such protective gear is needed.

“When people call 911, it is very important they answer the questions from the dispatchers so our personnel are wearing the proper (protective equipment,” Audette said. “They can’t wear it on every call. If they did we won’t have enough when they need it.”

Winthrop Ambulance Service Chief John Dovinsky displays a positive air pressure respirator, left, an N95 face mask, center, and a half face respirator with interchangeable N95 cartridges March 17. Each of his 48 employees are being trained to utilize the equipment in case of contact with coronavirus patients at the station in Winthrop. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Winthrop Ambulance Service Chief John Dovinsky said his department was set up fairly well with safety equipment at present, but that could change.

“I think just like everybody else, we all realize the longer this goes on, the more personal protective equipment we’re going to need,” he said. “The drawback right now is you can’t get masks anywhere. It doesn’t matter what your role is; there’s not even a prioritizing right now.”

Winthrop ambulance personnel also suit up for calls, including wearing goggles, and has three different types of respirators, Dovinsky said they would “deploy given the circumstances.”

“We’ll adapt as everyone else adapts, as the guidance from state agencies and CDC evolves for the most effective way to protect yourself,” he said.

Dovinsky said communication has been consistent from the state and federal CDCs, as well as Maine Emergency Medical Services: “Be prepared for folks who meet the criteria for having COVID-19, and you’re going to have to utilize full personal protective precautions.”

“In the end,” Dovinsky said, “that’s the most important piece.”

A part of emergency medical services for 35 years, he said he’s never encountered anything like the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Dovinsky said. “This is brand new ground for all of us.”

He said the safety and health of first responders is a main priority.

“What we can’t plan is how long does this go, for how long does the virus continue to spread,” Dovinsky said. “That will obviously have an impact on personnel and equipment. At this point nobody knows.”

Audette said public safety workers, when cleaning and disinfecting fire stations, have been using the same disposable medical gloves they use for emergencies, but for that task are now switching to using ones normally used by food service workers at the Augusta Civic Center. He said due to its closure, Earl Kingsbury, director of the Civic Center, sent a “huge stockpile” of gloves not being used, saving the medical gloves for emergency responses.

Hallowell Fire Chief Jim Owens said his department has been told by Augusta officials not to attend their emergency medical service calls, but said it wasn’t a big change because they only assist on those types of calls three or four times a year.

While no one seems to know how long the spread of coronavirus will last, what is clear, Dovinsky said, is for people to keep to themselves, especially if they’re feeling sick.

“Really the most important point coming out of this is to let people know if you’re sick,” he said. “Stay home. Don’t introduce this to other folks.

“The more we can do to affect the spread of it, the better off we’ll be,” Dovinsky added. “Let’s support each other, neighbor help neighbor. We’re Mainers; if we can survive the Ice Storm, we can survive this.”

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