Conn. first responders stunned to receive only expired respirators

The hundreds of N95 masks received from both the national and state stockpile were expired, most by at least 10 years


Meghan Friedmann
New Haven Register, Conn.

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — North Branford Fire Chief William Seward was alarmed when he got the news: his department, which runs the town’s ambulance service, would only receive one box of 35 respirators from the strategic national stockpile.

What’s more, all of those masks — which Seward picked up today in Essex — are expired.

First responders at fire departments in Connecticut have reported receiving only expired N95 masks, some expired by more than 10 years, from the national and state stockpiles as they confront the COVID-19 public health crisis. (Photo/Banej via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)
First responders at fire departments in Connecticut have reported receiving only expired N95 masks, some expired by more than 10 years, from the national and state stockpiles as they confront the COVID-19 public health crisis. (Photo/Banej via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

“It’s beyond belief,” Seward said. Although the town currently has enough supplies on hand, Seward worries about what will happen if COVID-19 cases spike a few weeks down the road, he said.

North Branford is not alone.

Two East Haven firefighters and their families were quarantined for two weeks Friday after the pair of first responders assisted a 79-year-old man who became the town’s first confirmed case of COVID-19, the town said in a statement.

East Haven Fire Chief Matthew Marcarelli is worried that if too many members of his team get sidelined because of exposure, they won’t be able to fight fires, he said.

“The department is supporting them and their families and both firefighters are doing well,” Marcarelli said.

Marcarelli was told that all of the 144,000 respirators in the state’s strategic stockpile are expired by at least 10 years, he said, adding that his department was allotted 220 respirators. They were all expired, and they were all sized small, he said.

“And I don’t know why any of this is coming as a surprise to the state,” Marcarelli said. “There’s been a pandemic plan since 2001.”

The state is a major source of the respirators, which are currently difficult to find, according to Marcarelli.

Further down the Shoreline, Guilford got 110 respirators — also expired, according to Assistant Fire Chief Michael Shove.

A memorandum from Lisa Bushnell, strategic national stockpile coordinator for the Connecticut Department of Public Health, indicates that in terms of personal protective equipment, many towns in the state are only receiving expired respirators at this time.

“The Department of Public Health (DPH) is in possession of expired N95 respirators manufactured in 2006 that were not granted a shelf-life extension by the federal government,” the memo says. “We requested that the federal government consider an extension given the national PPE shortage, which was not granted. These expired Kimberly Clarke N95 respirators will not provide the appropriate protection factor of non-expired N95s, but are likely to minimally provide protection equivalent to a surgical face mask.”

Hearst Connecticut Media obtained a copy of the letter, dated Thursday. Bushnell directed press inquiries to DPH spokesman Av Harris, who did not respond to a request for comment.

The state Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security divides Connecticut into five regions, according to its website. The memorandum about the expired respirators went out to Region 2 towns, according to an email to which the record is attached.

Thirty Connecticut towns make up Region 2, according to the DEMHS website.

Guilford Assistant Fire Chief Michael Shove confirmed that his town is also facing a challenge in terms of access to PPE. Eligible for 105 respirators, his department received more equipment than the North Branford Fire Department — but, again, all those respirators were expired, Shove said.

The state used each department’s call volume to determine how many respirators they would receive, according to the email sent to Region 2 towns.

But the North Branford Fire Department transports more than 900 patients annually, Seward said, adding that the respirators are not reusable.

What’s more, medical experts today expanded the possible symptoms associated with COVID-19 so as to include certain gastrointestinal issues, according to Seward. That means personal protective equipment may be necessary for more calls, Seward said.

Shove confirmed Seward’s account.

Although calls in North Branford are currently less frequent than normal, if COVID-19 cases surge, Seward said, the lack of personal protective equipment “will be a challenge for us.”

And it’s not just respirators first responders need. They also require gear like gloves and gowns, Shove said.

Shove hopes that Connecticut is able to prevent the surge in COVID-19 cases, or that manufacturers can ramp up PPE production, he said.

He’s not worried about the next two weeks, but he is worried about having sufficient supplies thereafter.

“We could definitely use supplies, but there’s nowhere to get supplies,” he said, adding that many departments are in the same boat. “All the chiefs have been vocal ... but the thing is, you can’t change the past.”

Shove’s team will make the most of what they have, he said.

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©2020 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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