A stronger federal response is needed to make sure Maine health care workers, firefighters, police and others have the personal protective equipment they need to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, representatives of front-line workers said Wednesday.

In a virtual news conference, union leaders called on President Trump to use the power he has under the Defense Production Act to order more companies to make the protective gowns and masks that workers say are in short supply during the pandemic.

If Trump won’t act, the union leaders said, Congress should step in and add requirements for personal protective equipment in legislation under consideration as part of the federal government’s response to the pandemic.

The federal government should be “laser-focused” on making sure supplies of equipment are adequate, said Patrick Carleton, president of a United Steelworkers local at the Sappi paper mill in Westbrook and vice president of the Maine AFL-CIO.

Carleton said most of the jobs at paper mills require workers to be within 6 feet of each other, and that they should have protective equipment similar to that used by health care workers. Health experts have advised that people practice physical distancing, meaning they should remain at least 6 feet from others, to prevent the spread of the virus.

And health care and emergency response workers are being forced to make judgments about when to use protective equipment because of shortages, decisions they shouldn’t have to make, said Sarai Briggs, a firefighter and paramedic in Saco and co-chair of the Women in Fire Service Committee of the Professional Firefighters of Maine.


“We have to use our educated judgment” on when protective equipment should be used, she said, adding that it’s only required when dealing with someone with a cough, fever or cold. “It’s a very fine line we’re walking.”

Briggs said more attention needs to be focused on the mental health of the emergency medical technicians, nurses and others on the front lines of the crisis. They are worried about catching the virus and spreading it to other workers and family members, she said, adding to the burden of already stressful jobs.

“This is just one added risk,” Briggs said. “There are a lot of unknowns about the situation we’re in.”

Cokie Giles, president of the Maine State Nurses Association and a registered nurse at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, said the federal government was slow to react to the pandemic as the virus spread across the country in February and March.

“We squandered precious weeks that we needed,” she said, forcing authorities to play catch-up. “It just astounds me.”

Giles said many nurses are being forced to use surgical face masks, which provide less protection than the medical-grade N95 respiratory masks that are in short supply. And hospitals and other health care providers are looking for ways to reuse masks that were designed to be used once and then discarded, she said.


“That is terribly scary,” Giles said.

The union leaders said federal authorities should require employers to draft safety plans to limit workers’ potential exposure to the virus. That would allow federal regulators to act if employers fail to take steps to protect their workers or don’t follow a plan, said Michael Crouse, president of the Professional Firefighters of Maine.

The federal response to the pandemic “has clearly fallen short,” Crouse said. “We’re not getting the supplies, and that has to change.”

Crouse said orders made in March for personal protective equipment are only being partially filled and are just arriving now. He said he’s asked Gov. Janet Mills to consider calling up the National Guard to help oversee production and delivery of the supplies.

He added that testing is inadequate for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. For instance, Crouse said, he was told this week that five firefighters in Orono were potentially exposed to coronavirus and ordered to quarantine until they could be tested and the results determined.

Taking that many firefighters out of a small department, even if for a few days while waiting for tests to be completed, he said, means there won’t be sufficient staff to respond to fires and other emergencies.

Andy O’Brien, communications director of the Maine AFL-CIO, echoed the others’ calls for a more robust federal response to the pandemic.

“We have to approach this as we would wartime,” he said.

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