Searching for masks in CT: 'pretty haphazard at this point'
Reprinted from the Connecticut Post. Article by Brian Lockhart, April 16, 2020 Updated: April 17, 2020
From hospitals to health clinics to supermarkets to residential homes, people across Connecticut are consumed by a mad hunt for what during normal circumstances would be easy to find: masks.
But with the coronavirus pandemic raging, such equipment was already hard to come by for front-line workers — medical professionals and emergency first responders. Then the federal government, Gov. Ned Lamont, and mayors in cities such as Bridgeport and New Haven recently called on average citizens to don masks in public places, including supermarkets.
“Wearing a mask is an important way to protect your neighbors, family members, and others from contracting (coronavirus),” New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said this week — advice the nation was not given in the early weeks of the health crisis.
The overall result has been a decentralized, catch-as-catch can scramble to identify suppliers and vie for their limited stock.
“We’re turning over every leaf to see what we can find,” said Rob Rioux, chief operating officer for the Community Health Center Association of Connecticut, whose member clinics have received supplies from the state but have also been mask hunting.
A problem everywhere
When Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim during a Facebook address this week called for his constituents to use face protection, one resident, Joe Ojeda, posted in response: “It’s a good idea for masks in stores, but when are masks going to be made available?”
Bridgeport had previously handed out hundreds to families. But now Ganim, Elicker, Lamont and other elected and health officials have instead urged the general public to make their own and leave the professionally produced equipment, from the high-end N95s used when treating patients, to the disposable surgical masks normally found in stores, for front-line health crisis workers.
But efforts to obtain makeshift protection have also been stymied, according to Westport-based United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 317. The union’s members, employees at large and small supermarket chains in Stamford, Darien, Bridgeport, Stratford and the New Haven area — are now required to wear facial protection while on the job.
“We ordered bandannas. Even those are tough to get,” said Tom Wilkinson, the Local 317’s president. “The supply chain has really broken down.”
Jennifer Hansen, a Quinnipiac University medical student, has used her spring break to help dozens of peers and faculty from the Hamden-based college produce homemade masks. First they supplied hospitals, now they have been working on “less-medical grade masks” for Quinnipiac’s facilities workers.
“I had to get a little creative,” Hansen said. “The Jo-Ann (fabric store) near me is running out of cotton fabric. But Target (department store) is still selling bed sheets.”
Summer Johnson McGee, dean of the University of New Haven’s School of Health Sciences, said, “Access to and allocation of masks and other personal protective equipment is pretty haphazard at this point.”
“Protective equipment should be distributed according to greatest need, not on a first come, first serve basis or, worse, to whoever is the highest bidder,” the dean said.
“We should have a centralized, coordinated collection and distribution by each state based on who is at greatest risk,” McGee said.
Josh Geballe, Lamont’s chief operating officer, on Wednesday told Hearst Media that Connecticut's procurement agency — the Department of Administrative Services — has been focused on acquiring and distributing all types of personal protective gear to healthcare and emergency response entities listed in a crisis response master database.
“We’ve gotten over 1,000 leads that either have come to us or we’ve sourced a potential supply. We’ve winnowed that down to about 300 that are actually legitimate,” Geballe said.
“There’s a lot of sketchy ‘middlemen’ out there. A lot of people who don’t really have the contacts and capabilities to deliver in this type of market,” he said.
Geballe said in particular the supply of masks of all types was turned “completely upside down” because most were manufactured in China, where the coronavirus outbreak began a few months ago.
“The whole world is trying to buy from that same source, so there’s crazy bidding wars going on and import/export issues,” Geballe said. He said manufacturers in Connecticut and other states are “retooling assembly lines” to produce masks, but “that takes time.”
Rioux said instead of federal authorities asserting control early on over the national supply chain for masks and personal protective equipment, they allowed “the free market to determine who lives or dies.”
Patricia Baker, head of the Connecticut Health Foundation, said, ideally, “There would have been a coming together of federal leaders and public health officials with state governors and departments of health to talk about distribution.” Philanthropists and donors would then be called upon in an organized manner to fill in “gaps.”
“It is very troubling to see individual cities, towns, communities scrambling for different supplies,” Baker said.
Who you know
Geballe called it an “all hands on deck” moment.
So Bridgeport has sought to purchase 50,000 surgical masks and 4,000 N95s, while Middletown, another city in Hearst’s coverage area, placed an order for 11,000 N95 masks. Middletown was fortunate and found a source in Waterford. And New Haven bought 5,000 N95 masks from China through a North Haven company.
Meanwhile some well-connected politicians, like Bob Stefanowski, the Republican party’s 2018 nominee for governor, and David Watkins, a Republican member of Stamford’s board of representatives, sought supplies out-of-state and out-of-country.
Stefanowski bought 500,000 surgical masks for .75 cents a piece from an importer in New Jersey, and, through a network that included many friends and allies, distributed them statewide to hospitals, nursing homes, municipalities, and others.
Watkins owns a company in China and identified a factory there that could make the N95 masks. He delivered 12,500 to Stamford Hospital through a circuitous route of several Chinese cities, Anchorage, Alaska; Indianapolis, Minnesota, then New York.
Geballe said Lamont’s administration was not worried about others procuring masks. While the state may sometimes have more buying-power, he said “we don’t have the capacity to chase down every potential possible source.”
“Some organizations have their own contacts, own sources, and it’s great they’re pursuing them,” Geballe said.
Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling said his city has received personal protective equipment from the state and from donors, while Greenwich First Selectman Fred Camillo said the new Greenwich Comes Together initiative was a reliable source of supplies.
But the University of New Haven’s McGee said private donors are “not the ideal way to distribute life-saving resources.”
“It’s nice of them to do it,” McGee said. But she worried such a lack of coordination means private entities have the power “to decide who is deserving of masks and who isn’t. It isn’t entirely fair.”
Another challenge is that, even after masks are found, purchased, shipped and handed out, the equipment has a limited lifespan.
Rioux said the health clinics early on in the pandemic received a several week supply from the state “that bought us time.”
“Our attention went right back to, ‘Where do we go next?’” he said.
And the Yale New Haven Health system this week issued a call for N95 and surgical masks, on social media.
“We had an OK supply at the beginning of this and, through donations and orders, we’ve been able to fill out our space,” said Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton. “It’s a continual battle, though. You do use a lot of them.”
“It’s constant, constant, constant,” Ganim said on Facebook. “Getting them, using them. Getting them, using them.”
Rick Fontana, the emergency management director in New Haven, said the city, when it was reported on Jan.24 that a student in the Chinese delegation to the model United Nations being held at Yale University was symptomatic, decided to beef up its supply of N95 masks in case coronavirus became an issue.
That gave firefighters in particular, who respond to medical calls, a base to work from when it became difficult to get more masks by mid-March.
Fontana said the masks obtained through the North Haven company and 10,000 received from the state are being distributed to fire personnel, police, public works, lunch workers who give out food to school children, building, Livable City Initiative and health inspectors, as well as shelter workers.
He said a supply is supposed to be arriving from the national stockpile through the state to New Haven, but he will not count on it as other supplies have been diverted from Connecticut.
Geballe said the global supply line will stabilize, but “how long it’s going to take to get there is unclear right now.”
In the meantime, as long as the pandemic rages, the mad hunt for masks must continue.
“It’s not the way to get it done, but we need to get it done,” said Professor Angela Mattie, who teaches healthcare management at Quinnipaic and is one of Hansen’s professors. Mattie has been furious about the lack of masks and other necessary healthcare supplies, especially because they are so critical to safety of her colleagues and former students.
“We should never be in this position. We’re the wealthiest country on earth,” Mattie said. “It breaks my heart.”
Staff writers Kenneth Borsuk, Angela Carella, Cassandra Day, Dan Haar, Mary O’Leary, Julia Perkins and Justin Papp contributed to this report.