Commentary: First responders need protection: Let’s not repeat the mistake of 9/11 as we fight coronavirus

Tribune Content Agency

New York City is at the heart of the coronavirus crisis. Each day, we see the grim tally as hospitalizations and deaths rise. To beat this pandemic, our city is relying on health care workers, first responders and public servants.

But these workers cannot protect us if we don’t protect them. I am deeply alarmed by the stories of rationed masks and hazardous working conditions that our frontline workers are facing.

After 9/11 we should have learned our lesson: Never send first responders to do their jobs without proper protection and a clear sense of the risks. We failed to do that, and 20 years later, people are paying the price.

We can’t repeat the mistakes of the past. We have to take immediate action to protect those who are fighting this deadly battle on our behalf.

First, we need to immediately procure more protective gear. Masks and eye shields, which are supposed to be single use, are being reused amidst the shortage. The FDNY is also rationing protective gear and no longer allows ambulance crews to carry a supply of N95 masks. A week ago, the Police Benevolent Association raised the red flag that officers weren’t being given sufficient gear to protect themselves.

In other words, we are sending our troops into war unarmed.

On March 19, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called on the federal government to provide 3 million N95 masks, 50 million surgical masks, 15,000 ventilators and 45 million each of surgical gowns, coveralls, gloves and face shields.

The president could do it, if he would use the Defense Production Act, a Korean War-era law that allows the federal government to mandate that domestic companies manufacture essential supplies. While he has said many times that he will consider doing so if needed, he fails to recognize that the need is already here.

We can’t tell nurses or EMS workers to reuse masks, or choose between NYPD and FDNY. We can’t say grocery store workers and transit workers can’t have masks and gloves because nurses need them. All of these workers are essential and every single one of them needs protection.

At this very moment, NYC first responders and essential workers are out on the front lines without the gear that they need. That’s unacceptable.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has significantly boosted production and has had success in procuring supplies, and New York City has also received some personal protective equipment from FEMA and the Strategic National Stockpile, though far from enough. Companies have also stepped up to manufacture or donate these goods.

But as the governor points out, as long as states bid against one another, this problem can’t be solved.

The federal government needs to step in, now. They should have done so weeks ago.

We must also ensure first responders have access to the tests they need. New guidelines specify that even if these workers have been exposed to a coronavirus patient, they should continue to report to work if they remain asymptomatic. That means that asymptomatic workers who are known to have been exposed must be tested.

This applies to EMS workers, firefighters, NYPD, transit workers and all those on the front lines. Throughout those populations, the virus has already begun to spread.

If the protective gear of an EMS worker assisting a COVID-19 patient is breached, that worker should be tested — symptomatic or not. If a health care worker, transit worker, grocery store worker or child care worker has a known exposure, they need testing so they can isolate, stop the spread and care for their own health.

As this disaster continues to unfold, a grateful city looks to its public servants and health care workers to pull us through this hard time. These essential workers must have every protection we can provide as they risk their own health and safety to protect our city.



State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, who represents parts of Brooklyn, is the chair of the Committee on Civil Service & Pensions in the New York State Senate.


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