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For Berkshire first responders, virus 'not like anything we've dealt with before'

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With the COVID-19 outbreak expected to peak in the coming weeks, emergency responders are girding for an onslaught of calls.

And while the state has provided some of the safety equipment requested, the level of those supplies doesn't yet match the anticipated need.

Amalio Jusino, manager of the Northern Berkshire County's Multi-Agency Coordination Center, said his organization received a delivery Wednesday from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency that included hand sanitizer, soap, medical gloves and masks and coveralls.

But, he said it was about 60 percent of what was requested.

Jusino said that with the current call volume in Northern Berkshire County, that supply will last a few weeks. But, with calls for emergency service likely to increase as the expected peak of the outbreak nears, he said, those supplies likely will run out sooner.

In the current environment, he said, responders are treating every scene as if it is contaminated.

"It's not like anything we've dealt with before," he said. "Usually, we're dealing with tangible things such as a fire or a rescue. Everywhere you go and everyone you speak to is the unknown."

Jusino said the supplies on hand will be delivered to the individual departments that requested them, and another inventory will be taken and another request to MEMA on behalf of those departments will be made, likely by early next week.

He said none of the fire departments he works with in Northern Berkshire has any personnel out due to COVID-19 concerns, but Northern Berkshire EMS has four of its staff under quarantine, one of whom has tested positive.

In Pittsfield, Fire Chief Thomas Sammons said the department has had no positive cases of COVID-19.

Four personnel were quarantined after potential exposure, but all tested negative and returned to duty.

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Sammons said Pittsfield also did not receive all the supplies it had requested.

Some of those requested, but not yet delivered, items include medical gowns, masks and thermometers to check staff each morning for fever.

He said, though, that the department has a number of unused respirators from about 2006. He checked into whether they still were usable and would be appropriate for avoiding COVID-19 exposure and found that they were, which eases some of the supply burden.

Sammons said the department is adhering to new, stricter decontamination protocols and guidelines, lessening the risk of exposure and contamination.

"The guys are doing a great job getting prepared for every call," he said. "They're decontaminating their apparatus all the time."

"I mean, this place smells like bleach," he said. "It's crazy"

Those protocols came about after a meeting Sammons said he had with his four deputy chiefs in order to stay ahead of the outbreak as best as they can.

"We know what's coming," he said.

He said that, even with the stress of responding to a fluid, potentially dangerous situation, morale among the department members remains high.

Having reliable protective equipment, though, mitigates that stress, Sammons said.

"If you have faith in your personal protective equipment, it actually lessens the stress," he said. "We're very comfortable with PPE; we use it all the time."

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@berkshireeagle.com and at @BobDunn413 on Twitter.


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