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Small Maine Providers Are Finding It Impossible To Source Necessary Protective Equipment

Supplies of personal protective equipment, or PPE, were a major worldwide concern in the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Four months after COVID-19 was first identified in Maine, the situation has improved — But many health care providers say finding PPE is still a struggle, and they worry that if there’s a surge of the disease this fall, there won’t be enough on hand.

When the pandemic first hit Maine, Eastport Health Care saw its typical sources for PPE quickly dry up. CEO Ellen Krajewski says it has been a scramble ever since.

“It’s an ongoing, everyday battle to get PPE, still,” she says.

Krajewski says the most difficult pieces of equipment to get are N95 masks, especially in size small, which is what her staff needs to ensure that they provide adequate protection.

“We cannot get small N95s. There is no way. My facility person tries every day. Last week he spent one whole night on the phone with people in Singapore. Actually it was two weeks ago. And we paid. It says it’s shipped. We haven’t got it, we don’t have a tracking number. It’s been two weeks. No confirmation, nothing,” she says.

Krajewski says the health center has made several requests for N95s through the local Emergency Management Agency, but has instead received a different type of mask that doesn’t fit appropriately. At best, Krajewski says, her backup supply lasts two weeks. The lack of a stable source of PPE, she says, has forced Eastport Health Care to limit the patients they can see and test for COVID-19.

“We can’t do community testing when we don’t have supplies,” she says.

Independent physicians are also feeling the pinch of limited PPE.

“We do have PPE, but it’s not the right kind, I would say,” says Dr. Scott Schiff-Slater, co-owner of Hallowell Family Practice.

Schiff-Slater says he has some masks, but they don’t fit appropriately. He says he has requested equipment from the state’s supply through the local Emergency Management Agency several times, to no avail.

“So I don’t really know why the EMA is not allowed to give us the equipment they have, and I’ve talked to them frequently,” he says.

Dan Morin, spokesperson for the Maine Medical Association, says he’s not aware of any independent physician who has received PPE from the state supply.

“They have not received one mask, one swab, or one dollar. At all,” he says.

Morin says that smaller practices tend to face larger hurdles in acquiring PPE because they don’t have the purchasing power of large organizations.

“It’s beyond frustrating for the physician community in Maine to constantly receive praise that they are heroes on the front lines of a once in a lifetime pandemic, but on the flip side, have not received any substantial help,” he says.

A spokesperson for the Maine Center for Disease Control says in a written statement that the purpose of the state’s supply of PPE is for emergency response. That’s why the majority has been distributed to first responders, long-term care facilities and hospital emergency departments. However, the CDC and the Maine Medical Association met earlier this week to help address concerns about PPE.

Schiff-Slater says he hopes a solution can be reached before a second wave of COVID-19 hits.

“That’s where my worries are at the moment. Thinking about how we’re going to handle things if they get worse in the future,” he says.

Even health care sectors in Maine that currently have more stable PPE supplies — such as nursing homes, home care and hospitals — share the worry that a future surge of disease could create a serious shortage.

Krajewski at Eastport Health Care says she believes the federal government should take action.

“Manufacturers in this country need to be mandated to make this stuff. There’s not the support and necessary steps at the federal level,” she says.

The kind of support, Krajewski says, that will ensure front-line health care workers can stay safe while caring for patients, and protect their own friends and families from infection.