Under the Cloak of Secrecy, Fresh Protective Gear Reaches North Texas

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The third of three scheduled shipments of protective gear from the federal government arrived in the DFW area Monday, at a secure warehouse in Arlington, its secret location closely guarded around the clock by DPS troopers.

From there, a team of emergency managers decides who first will receive the critically needed supplies, as health care workers and other first responders scramble to protect themselves – as they work to protect others from COVID-19.

NBC 5 Investigates was there, exclusively, when N-95 masks and other protective equipment arrived, then loaded into fire department and hospital vehicles.

It was the largest of three planned shipments to DFW from the federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile, described as the “nation’s largest supply of life-saving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for use in a public health emergency severe enough to cause local supplies to run out.”

The most recent shipment is still not enough to serve all the needs in North Texas, and additional PPE could come from the national stockpile if the crisis deepens, NBC 5 Investigates has been told.

Distribution is being coordinated by the North Central Texas Trauma Regional Advisory Council, which has received more than 650 requests for personal protection equipment, or PPE.

The behind-the-scenes agency said it has only been able to fill 197 of those requests so far, serving 160 entities, including paramedics, police, assisted living centers and hospitals, where doctors said PPE is needed now.

“They need to consider that if the nurses, first-responders and doctors get sick, there’s no longer gonna be people available to take care of those patients,” said Dr. Robert Hancock, president-elect of the Texas College of Emergency Physicians.

Hancock and his group work to staff emergency rooms throughout North Texas, where doctors and nurses are desperately trying to conserve and recycle the masks they still have.

“We have no idea when we’re going to start to see an increased production and replenishment,” he said, adding, “So I’ve told my guys just to go on the assumption that what you’ve got in stock right now is what you’re going to have for the foreseeable future.”

In deciding who gets masks first, the regional trauma advisory council, or NCTTRAC, analyzes data showing how fast each hospital goes through masks, known as their “burn rates.”

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that the state has ordered hundreds of thousands of additional masks – a sizable number until you consider that just one large hospital in New York is burning through more than 40,000 masks a day.

There was also evidence locally on just how desperate officials are to get additional supplies of PPE.

For instance, when Fort Worth learned a company could ship more masks here, the city, instead, dispatched two police officers to personally pick them up in San Antonio.

The Fort Worth Fire Department also reported burning through masks – at a rate of 200 per day – as it worked to attend to people who were sick.

“You have to consider for every one of these patients, you’re talking about a lot of PPE between all the people that are going to see them,” Hancock said.

In the secure, secretive warehouse in Arlington, the fresh supply of PPE will remain just long enough for a quick inventory check, then quickly sent to those who need them most.

When and where the next shipment comes from is not clear.

“We feel like we’re dealing with something that is beyond any magnitude we’ve ever seen. And there’s a lot of unknowns,” Hancock said.

The regional trauma advisory council told NBC 5 Investigates it is finding more sources of supplies on its own and will work to distribute any increase in availability of PPE from the state.

Meanwhile, doctors and nurses throughout North Texas tell us they wish they could get clearer guidance from the federal government and the state on when they could expect additional gear to protect themselves during the crisis.

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