The reality of the COVID-19 pandemic struck Rob Puls on March 19, when Bayfield County confirmed its first positive case of the virus.
Puls coordinates paramedics for Great Divide Ambulance, which staffs four ambulances around the clock in the 15,000-person county that hugs Lake Superior. The four vehicles cover around 730 square miles, an area three times the size of Chicago.
“I think everybody up here was shocked, because they thought we were rural and removed,” Puls said of the positive test, the first of the county’s three confirmed COVID-19 cases so far.
Like other health care and essential workers, Puls’ crews have beefed up their use of personal protective equipment (PPE) as they try to stay safe during the pandemic. They now wear gloves and a face mask to every call. And when a patient has COVID-19 symptoms, they don N-95 respirators, gowns and face shields.
But most PPE is designed for temporary use, and replenishing those crucial supplies has proved incredibly difficult. When Puls called his supplier early in the pandemic, no one answered the phone.
“It just kept ringing,” he said. “They were inundated.”
And now? He hears an automated message along the lines of: “ ‘Don’t even ask us for protective equipment, because we have none.’ ”
Protective gear shortages are growing more acute across Wisconsin as COVID-19 keeps spreading. Dozens of hospitals have less than a week of PPE on hand, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association. The state Department of Health Services has issued guidance on conserving supplies, saying it “expects continued PPE shortages.”
Unlike cities, which have full-time emergency medical responders on staff at the local fire department, Wisconsin’s rural emergency services typically rely on a patchwork of funding sources and volunteer labor. These rural services face particular challenges in paying for these crucial supplies — when they can find them.
WPR and Wisconsin Watch spoke to six rural Wisconsin emergency medical service providers who called the PPE shortage a top hurdle in responding to the pandemic. The departments are using creative solutions to find the gear, sometimes exhausting their tiny budgets once they do.
Wisconsin has received some outside help with equipment. In addition to a call out soliciting PPE, the state procured two shipments from the Strategic National Stockpile to distribute locally. Those include roughly 404,000 face and surgical masks, 248,000 pairs of gloves, 165,000 N-95 respirators, 79,000 face shields, 41,000 surgical gowns and 192 coveralls. A third shipment is on the way.
But it’s not enough.
“We’ve tried every vendor that we use. We’ve searched the internet. We’ve applied for supplies from the (national stockpile),” said Ryan Olson, director of ambulance services in the Barron County city of Chetek, population 2,100.