The Spokane Transit Authority plans to go against the guidance of numerous health and emergency management officials and distribute its stockpile of 2,380 N95 masks to bus and paratransit drivers on a voluntary basis beginning Friday.
The masks are a critical and increasingly rare piece of protective equipment in the fight against the global coronavirus pandemic, and Greater Spokane Emergency Management and the Spokane Regional Health District advised the transit agency to “adhere to the practices outlined by global health experts – not to distribute N95 masks to frontline transit workers,” Susan Meyer, STA’s chief executive officer, wrote in a memo to employees.
The decision to distribute the masks to drivers who want them was made in response to calls from some STA employees concerned about their close contact with large numbers of people at much closer range than the 6 feet recommended by health officials for social distancing.
But STA made the decision as the nation faces what Providence Health called in a Wednesday blog post a “massive national shortage of personal protective equipment to fight COVID-19” and despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that N95s are “only for use by health care personnel.”
While the transit agency plans to make 2,380 masks available to drivers and has another 260 N95 masks on hand for maintenance employees working around chemicals, fumes and paint, the Spokane Valley Fire Department has 400 N95 masks, which are considered a backup for the department’s 180 reusable respirators. The fire department also has just 1,500 less-protective surgical masks for patients and is having trouble getting more personal protective equipment.
The Spokane Valley Fire Department’s two usual suppliers are all out, and so are their backup suppliers, said Mike Charter, division chief of emergency medical services.
Spokane Valley EMS would normally put masks on every patient they meet, but for now they’re only using them on people who are coughing or showing respiratory symptoms.
Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said because the novel coronavirus can be spread by people who aren’t experiencing symptoms, the department is using masks on all calls. Once the supply runs out – which could happen as early as next week, Schaeffer said firefighters will have to use respirators instead.
Meyer announced the decision at a Thursday meeting of the agency’s board of directors. Although Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns noted at the meeting there’s an “across-the-board shortage” of personal protective equipment in the area, no one raised objections to the plan to use them for drivers.
Brandon Rapez-Betty, STA’s director of communications and customer service, said STA officials “struggled” with the decision about making the masks available to drivers against guidance that says they “should be reserved for frontline health care workers.”
“But we’re in a really tough position,” Rapez-Betty said. “Do you follow the guidance? Or do you follow the employees providing critical services? And no matter what decision we make, we know we’ll be criticized.”
Meyer echoed that notion in her employee memo: “There is no right answer in this situation. Regardless of the decision I make, I will take an unpopular action in the eyes of people for whom I hold deep respect: our regional partners in the emergency response, or our own coach and van operators who find themselves in close proximity to passengers accessing critical transportation services.”
Kelli Hawkins, public information officer for the Spokane Regional Health District, noted that STA’s decision doesn’t comply with existing guidance – but she wasn’t willing to criticize the agency’s move Thursday.
“I know they care about their employees and our community … and it is important we have public transportation right now for people who rely on Spokane Transit to get to their appointments or their groceries,” Hawkins said. “So if they need to take steps to make sure that their team is all healthy, then that’s what they need to do.”
But Savannah Baxter, whose father is an STA driver and whose mother has an autoimmune disease, did criticize the agency for how it has treated drivers since the threat of coronavirus became apparent.
“I think they can give out masks all they want, but I don’t necessarily think that does enough to protect the drivers,” Baxter said.
Noting guidelines that say N95 masks more effectively prevent those who are sick from spreading the virus than protect the well from contracting it, Baxter believes STA should allow drivers to stay home if they are at high risk or pose a high risk to others.
“Letting people stay home who need to stay home would be a fair thing to ask,” Baxter said.
Jennifer Semenza, communication manager for Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, said she did not believe the hospital had been in contact with STA about extra masks, but that the hospital would accept corporate donations “for items like face masks, face shields, N95s and surgical masks as long as the items were new and unused, and still in the original packaging.”
National business news outlet Bloomberg reported Thursday the nine Washington state hospitals in the Providence system had switched to less strict guidelines for mask use that allowed employees to wear them for longer, in an effort to conserve supplies. Bloomberg also reported Providence had shipped “surplus equipment” from Spokane to Seattle to assist in fighting the COVID-19 spread there.
Semenza said Sacred Heart would not ship supplies “that would limit our ability to protect our caregivers who, in turn, care for the community.”
Rhonda Bowers, who has driven for STA for 27 years and serves as the recording secretary of the union that represents agency employees, said she is “thanked every single day” by passengers appreciative of her commitment to keep driving despite the danger of coronavirus transmission. But she also noted she – and members of her family – have deep concerns about the risk she faces.
Her grandson, she said, has been “calling everywhere” trying to find a mask for her to wear, without success. And she said she’s concerned about not only contracting the virus herself but also about transmitting it to her parents, who are in their late 80s.
“I don’t know at what point I have to stop seeing them,” Bowers said before starting to cry.
But as for taking advantage of the N95 masks STA will begin offering her, Bowers said she has “mixed feelings.”
For one thing, she said, “I know they’re not going to last.” For another, she said she’s doubtful it will eliminate her “chances of being exposed and contaminated.”
“It’s so unprecedented, and it’s so hard to know,” Bowers said.
She said she has heard from fellow drivers, though, who are more sure they will wear the masks, especially those with existing respiratory issues and those who, like her, have family members who might be at high risk of death from the virus.
While she said she is most likely to use the masks in circumstances where it seems most urgent, such as when a coughing passenger boards a bus, Bowers wishes there were a sufficiently ample supply that no tough decision would have to be made.
“You just don’t get to plan these things,” Bowers said. “So you just do the best you can.”
STA is not the only local agency struggling with tough decisions about how to make up for the shortfall in the supply of personal protective equipment.
“We’re told that Washington state is dangerously close to not having enough (personal protective equipment) to fill the requests for supplies for hospitals and clinics,” said Jeff Rochon, CEO of the Washington State Pharmacy Association (WSPA). “We are in urgent mode to address that issue.”
It’s a waiting game to get supplies, said Charter, of the Spokane Valley Fire Department.
“With the national emergency declaration, they’re kicking loose federal stockpiles of this stuff,” Charter said.
The Department of Defense will give 5 million masks from its strategic reserves to the Department of Health and Human Services, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a news conference Tuesday.
Nationally, distributors are working to fill orders, the Washington Department of Health Joint Information Center said in an email. The federal Department of Health is working with supply chain vendors and manufacturers to expand production, it said.
The Spokane Valley Fire Department is in a pretty good spot, Charter said, but smaller departments don’t have the budgets or resources to stockpile respirator masks or keep up with now-skyrocketing prices.
“It’s not a matter of if it’s going to be available,” he said. “It’s more about how long it’s going to take to get here and get out to the individual fire trucks and ambulances that need it.”
Jonathan Brunt and Kip Hill contributed to this report.
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