Editorial: Look out for the helpers

In his famously reassuring line to a preschool audience, Fred Rogers said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Americans take for granted that when an emergency strikes, the calvary is on its way. Paramedics, firefighters, police officers, doctors and nurses have made careers of helping others. 

These helpers deserve our gratitude, but far more than platitudes, they deserve the tools they need to do their jobs as safely as possible. The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the fact that this country has not done enough to protect those who protect us. Without adequate personal protective equipment, hospital beds, respirators, testing and staffing, those on the front lines of the pandemic have been left vulnerable to the disease, to exhaustion and to the possibility of having to decide who lives and who dies if there aren’t enough resources to go around. It’s terrifying and inexcusable.  

The world has seen devastating outbreaks before, including the Spanish flu in 1918 and H1N1 in 2009. In 2014, the specter of a global pandemic rose again with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa (11,308 people died in the epidemic). But apparently neither history nor government simulations were sufficient impetus for action.  

On the 100th anniversary of the 1918 flu epidemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Influenza Division did a presentation titled “100 Years since 1918: Are we ready for the next pandemic?” Among the preparedness “gaps” identified in the presentation were that the “health care system could get overwhelmed in a severe pandemic” and health care professionals need “reusable respiratory protective devices and better ventilator access.” The New York Times reported that just last year the federal Department of Health and Human Services did a series of exercises simulating an influenza epidemic. The results, according to the Times, “drove home just how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated the federal government would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed.” 

Last week, President Trump told governors, “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment – try getting it yourselves.”  

The supply of personal protective equipment is in “a complete state of flux for us,” said Dr. James Jarvis of Northern Light Health. “It is going to be problematic as there are shortages across the country and frankly around the world.” 

At an emergency City Council meeting Sunday, March 15, Ellsworth Fire Chief Richard Tupper reported that, due to the demand, his department had not been able to obtain medical-grade N95 respirator masks. The department has been able to assemble some protective gear using other masks and a protective hood on loan from the airport.  

Dispatchers have implemented a new protocol to evaluate whether callers may have symptoms of coronavirus. It’s a small line of defense, but our first responders deserve much more. 


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