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How First Responders Are Dealing With Coronavirus

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

As the coronavirus shows up in more states, first responders say that they face a potential shortage of supplies, one that could lead to more people getting sick. Brett Sholtis has more from member station WITF in Harrisburg, Penn. And note of caution here for those driving - the first part of this story includes the sound of an ambulance siren.

BRETT SHOLTIS, BYLINE: When the call comes in and the klaxon sounds at Susquehanna Township EMS, paramedic Julia Hanson jumps into her emergency vehicle. Hanson follows her team's ambulance across town with her lights and sirens on. She says this is a pretty typical call.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBULANCE SIREN)

JULIA HANSON: Eighty-one-year-old female - very lethargic - not responding - she is a DNR, which is a do not resuscitate.

SHOLTIS: Because of coronavirus, the county 911 center is now asking callers questions to determine if someone is showing symptoms of COVID-19. That's not the case on this call to a nursing home. So Hanson isn't planning to wear a face mask. But that may change as more cases pop up around the country.

HANSON: Because geriatric patients are at high risk in general - but when they're at these facilities being that close with other people in, you know, not always cleanly conditions, it's a breeding ground.

SHOLTIS: Without protective gear, like the N95 face masks that are now in short supply nationwide, Hanson says she could carry a virus home to vulnerable family members like her nephew, who she says is prone to respiratory illness.

HANSON: I worry about him. I do. I'm not worried about me. But I'm worried about him. He's just a little kid.

SHOLTIS: Susquehanna EMS has enough N95 masks saved up to get them through a normal year. But if they run out, at least right now, manufacturers aren't able to provide more. And this ambulance company is not alone. Leslee Stein-Spencer is a program adviser at the National Association of State EMS Officials. She says emergency medical service agencies around the country aren't out of masks yet.

LESLEE STEIN-SPENCER: But they will run short if they have to continue and contain this in the next couple weeks.

SHOLTIS: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said medical professionals may consider using some old, expired N95 masks.

STEIN-SPENCER: But on the flip side, NIOSH has come out and said that they don't recommend using any expired masks.

SHOLTIS: NIOSH is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. And it's a division of the CDC. Stein-Spencer adds, when emergency workers get sick, it doesn't just affect them personally. It makes it harder to keep ambulance services running.

STEIN-SPENCER: If it comes to that point, you would look at alternate staffing measures. And you would look at, you know, triaging. The sickest patients would come to hospital. The other ones would not get an ambulance.

MATT BAILY: So we keep a lot of our isolation materials down here.

SHOLTIS: Back at the Susquehanna EMS station, director Matt Baily says while mask shortages are new, agencies like his have long had a hard time getting other supplies. The federal government lists shortages of 12 drugs nationwide that are considered essential for emergency workers to do their jobs. With many drugs made overseas, Baily expects to see supply-chain issues like what happened in 2017 with Hurricane Maria.

BAILY: So one of the reasons we had this saline shortage - because that hurricane went through Puerto Rico, and there was large facilities there that were producing this for the United States.

SHOLTIS: And Bailey says money alone won't fix the problem. He says the best you can hope for is up-to-date information, healthy employees and enough supplies to last until the global health emergency is over. For NPR News, I'm Brett Sholtis in Harrisburg.

SIMON: And this story comes to us from NPR's reporting partnership with WITF and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.