PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — Firefighters and medics on the front lines are having to reuse masks over and over again.
West Palm Beach Fire Chief Diana Matty said she’s had to make a tough decision in asking her first responders to reuse N95 masks during a pandemic.
“I know that PPE should not be reused, but I’ve had to ask my people to reuse gear that’s disposable,” she said. “We have enough where we can wear them for 5 calls and then they get to dispose of it.”
Chief Matty told Contact 5 that right now her department has about 4,000 N95 masks on hand. If reused for 5 calls, she says the supply can last about 8 weeks; used once for each call and it’s depleted in just 2 weeks.
“We cannot accept that I have to reuse a mask, this is a disposable item,” she said.
Chief Matty said Palm Beach County has assisted by giving the department 1600 N95 masks along with thousands of other necessary supplies.
An email obtained by Contact 5 shows the county has distributed more than 177,000 masks to first responders, hospitals, and other entities since late March.
“At this point, it’s not a money thing, it’s a supply thing,” Chief Matty said. “When we used to pay 69-75-cents a piece for these masks and now its $5 and $8 apiece for masks, I will dump my entire training budget to buy masks, they’re just not available.”
Contact 5 asked Congresswoman Lois Frankel what she’s doing about the shortage, a day after she held a Zoom meeting with Chief Matty and others on the front lines.
“I’m going to do what I’ve been doing, which is to continue, we’re on conference calls to let the leadership know that this is still an issue,” she said.
"They’re getting up and going to work everyday they’re risking their families lives and they don’t have the protective equiptment they need. It’s wrong. Many of us are fighting to help them," Frankel noted, adding "Congress has put the money, the money is there, we just need the goods to be manufactured.”
“The patients are fearful of what’s going on, the medics are fearful of the unknown. It’s a very complex issue,” Chief Matty said.
A spokesperson with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue told Contact 5 that they reuse masks for three shifts before they’re collected and saved for possible future sanitation.
An infectious disease doctor told Contact 5 there is minimal risk if the same person reuses the same mask, but in normal circumstances, it should be thrown away after each use.
Chief Matty says none of her firefighters or medics have tested positive for COVID-19.