Amid continuing shortages of personal protective equipment, labor organizations representing nurses and first responders are pressing Gov. Jay Inslee for more information about what gear is being distributed and where it is going.
Leaders of these groups say that some of their members are reporting acute shortages of masks and other protective gear, while others are in better shape. The groups are asking for weekly distribution reports that they say could help ensure that the gear goes to where it is most needed.
“It is critical that we understand the supply chain and where PPE can be utilized… now, rather than being saved for later,” said an April 1 letter from leaders of six labor groups, including the Washington Council of Police & Sheriffs, Washington State Council of Firefighters and the Washington State Nurses Association.
An Inslee spokeswoman, reached Friday, said the governor’s office had not yet had a chance to talk with the state Emergency Operations Centers about the labor groups’ request for the weekly reports. “The governor has been talking about this constantly … just stressing in the past few days the importance of PPE for a broader ranger of workers,” Inslee communications director Tara Lee wrote Friday in an email to The Seattle Times.
The labor groups’ letter comes at a time when supplies of PPE in a federal stockpile have shriveled.
Inslee is rallying Washington companies to help produce masks and other equipment for frontline workers in the pandemic, and earlier this week, received a critical care decontamination system at Camp Murray that, once operational, should be able to sanitize tens of thousands of N95 masks daily for reuse.
As the shortages of this gear persist, and some first responders fall sick with the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, Inslee and his staff have been under increasing pressure to do a better job of informing the public about the acquisition and distribution effort.
Last month, state officials released information about Washington’s requests for personal protective gear from federal stockpiles, and anticipated dates of deliveries. Some information relayed to reporters about the volumes of gear ordered from the stockpiles later turned out to be inaccurate.
Officials in the labor groups say they appreciate that state officials have been working hard amid crisis conditions to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. But some say they have been frustrated in their efforts to get more information about distributions.
“I started contacting the governor’s office and said, ‘Hey, where is the PPE, how do we make sure that first responders aren’t the forgotten ones,'” said Teresa Taylor, executive director of the Washington Council of Police & Sheriffs, which represents 4,500 police officers and deputies who work across a broad swath of the state outside the Seattle-King County area.
Taylor said that her members are consistently reporting shortages of PPE, including sanitizing wipes for gear. Some members are reporting an almost complete lack of the gear, she said.
Last week, the Tacoma Police Department received a boost from the Tacoma Fire Department, which turned over several hundred N95 respirator masks. The police didn’t have any of these N95 masks, and that concerned members of the Fire Department who went out on calls with them.
“I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to my brothers and sisters in the Tacoma Fire Department for looking out for my members’ needs,” said Chris Tracy, president of Tacoma Police Local 6.
Nurses also want more information about how much equipment is in the hospitals and clinics where they work, which often has been rationed in preparation for a possible surge of COVID-19 patients in the days or weeks ahead. In their letter to Inslee, the labor groups asked the state to provide a weekly report from hospitals and health-care providers about how much gear is on hand.
“Our nurses on the front lines are being told to store N95 respirators in baggies for reuse, or are sometimes being forced to work without protective goggles because they aren’t available,” said Anne Tan Piazza of the Washington State Nurses Association.
Sally Watkins, the nurses association’s executive director said “we are confident that Governor Inslee is listening to us and working to bring more supplies into the state and get those supplies to frontline health care workers as quickly as possible.”
The letter also asks for weekly reports of numbers of health-care workers and first responders being tested for the coronavirus, and also includes a request for a state-wide standard to be adapted for leave due to quarantine.
The letter was also addressed to State Secretary of Health John Wiesman and Vice Admiral Raquel Bono who serves as state director for the COVID-19 Health System Response.
Jane Hopkins, executive vice president of SEIU Healthcare, Faye Guenther, president of UCFW 21 and John Scearcy, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters 117, also signed the letter.