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New York has become the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis in the United States, with more than 44,000 infections and 519 deaths as of Friday. Now the surge in cases is causing complications in Pinellas County.
Gowns, gloves, goggles and N95 masks that Florida officials received from private vendors to distribute to counties have at times been redirected by the federal government to New York City, Jason Mahon, Florida Division of Emergency Management communications director, confirmed on Friday.
Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton said the diversion of materials to New York has left the county with about a two-week supply of gloves, masks and gowns for first responders, a fluid estimate that could change with the influx of new cases or replenishment of supplies. As a result, county officials are tapping into alternative sources for materials, like local vendors and manufacturers who are stepping up to produce products they normally would not make.
“It continues to be a major problem,” Burton said. “We’re trying to make sure we’re ready; the question is ready for what volume?”
Details about the diverted Florida supplies were unclear Friday, including how much material was sent to New York, the counties across the state that had their deliveries diverted and the quantity of supplies the state has ordered from private vendors. Mahon, the state emergency management official, said he would endeavor to provide those answers.
The county began its call to businesses, trade schools and manufacturers for alternative medical supplies early last week, said Mike Meidel, director of Pinellas County economic development.
So far, Meidel said 47 companies, from surgical suppliers to plastics manufacturers, are working with the county. Some have donated existing medical supplies. Others have connected the county with their own supply chains to obtain materials. Others are working to create products to be used in the crisis.
On Friday morning, county officials began evaluating sample gowns, surgical masks and 3D-printed head bands it received from various vendors, said Cathie Perkins, director of Pinellas County emergency management. Perkins said the county is also talking to companies about producing other items like fabrics with anti-bacterial coatings and cleaning solutions.
“Our goal is what can we produce here locally that will give us the highest level of protection,” Perkins said. “There’s a lot of capacity here and it’s just amazing how they are all continuing to pivot and collectively work with us on a solution.”
Meidel said the county is also evaluating prototypes for cloth surgical masks as well as plastic face shields that vendors have produced over the past two weeks to protect first responders from contaminants.
Meidel said once the county determines which products can be used by first responders, local businesses will be compensated for the materials.
In any case, Burton said the county is desperately urging residents to follow the “safer at home” order the Pinellas County Commission passed on Wednesday, which directs all residents to remain at home except for essential trips like grocery shopping, medical appointments and exercising outdoors while keeping 6 feet from others.
Without a vaccine, Burton said adherence to social distancing is the best tool the public has at curbing the spread of the virus and preventing a death toll seen in New York.
“We’re not as dense as New York, but we do see our numbers going up,” Burton said. "We’ve got a window of time, but it’s not a large window of time and that’s the reason we’re looking at these alternatives. "
Rick Stasiowski, a Clearwater Fire & Rescue division chief, said while his agency is dealing with a two-week supply of gloves, masks and gowns, he is encouraged that the county has so far been able to fulfill any order he has placed.
With the prevalence of the coronavirus, the department has increased its use of personal protective equipment on calls in which first responders normally would not be using them, Stasiowski said.
But with strategic use of the materials and the county now looking to alternative sources, he said he is comfortable with his department’s capabilities.
“We’re about three steps ahead on those types of things, so I feel comfortable that we’re not in dire straights,” Stasiowski said.
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