Leaders in St. Paul and Minneapolis are asking for help from the federal government as they scramble to equip first responders with protective equipment amid the national shortage.
In an April 2 call with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said supplies such as N95 masks, disinfectant and hospital gowns are dwindling and replacements are expensive or unavailable.
"Our supply needs are so staggering that right now, because we lack thermometer probe covers, our first responders are literally using Saran Wrap as a safe, but clearly problematic short-term solution, just so they can take patients' temperatures," Carter said. "We need help getting vital supplies so that our first responders, just like our health care workers, can continue to protect us."
In an interview Monday, Carter said St. Paul is working with federal and state leaders "to ensure that we're able to meet the local needs that we have right here."
Cities across the country are in a similar position. In late March, the United States Conference of Mayors released a survey of 213 cities that found more than 90% did not have an adequate supply of face masks for first responders, and 88% did not have an adequate supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) other than face masks.
A group of 303 mayors, including Carter and Frey, sent a letter to congressional leaders on March 20 asking for $250 billion in emergency assistance for cities — money that could go, in part, toward personal protective equipment. The $2 trillion stabilization package that President Donald Trump signed into law at the end of March includes $150 billion for state and local governments.
"Ideally, we'd have a national system to purchase and distribute masks and PPE so that we're not competing against each other and driving the prices up at a time when we need them the most," Carter said Monday. "Ideally, we would have a significant stimulus coming, both for impacted individuals, impacted small businesses, but then also at the same time for the local government units ... who really are leaning heavily into that work."
Klobuchar, D-Minn., acknowledged the challenge during the April 2 call, which also included business and health care leaders. In recent weeks, Klobuchar has sent delegation letters and signed onto legislation addressing the need for medical supplies.
"I think you are aware more than any other, the people on the front lines, how much this is not just a funding issue, it's a supply issue, with the need to get the administration to get that gear out there," she said.
Carter told Klobuchar during the phone call and in a follow-up letter April 4 that N95 masks that previously cost $1 or $2 apiece now cost $5. The St. Paul water department and local distilleries are producing disinfectant and hand sanitizer, but more is needed. And with hospital gowns for emergency medical services down to a two-week supply, "we have exhausted every resource and found no suppliers with any to offer," Carter wrote.
Frey told Minneapolis council members on Friday that the city's health department is "distributing a limited number of supplies," such as masks, gloves and thermometers, to health care organizations, long-term care facilities and other groups.
In the phone call with Klobuchar, Frey said first responders in Minneapolis "are properly equipped as of right now."
"But as additional calls come through," he said, "there's a lack of certainty what the stock will be at in a month or two."
Staff writer Liz Navratil contributed to this report.