President of the Maine State Nurses Association Cokie Giles is pictured in this 2014 file photo. Credit: Brian Feulner | Bangor Daily News

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Union leaders representing Maine nurses, firefighters, first responders and mill workers on Wednesday called on President Donald Trump to use the full power of the federal government to ensure frontline workers have the protective equipment necessary to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Representatives from the Maine AFL-CIO, the Maine State Nurses Association, the Professional Firefighters of Maine, and United Steelworkers Local 9 said during a virtual press conference that workers across the state are doing essential work without the safety gear needed to ensure they won’t be infected with COVID-19.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

The collection of labor leaders called on Trump to utilize the Defense Production Act to ramp up the production and distribution of personal protective equipment amid a nationwide shortage. The act, originally passed in 1950, allows the president to force private companies to accept and prioritize contracts needed for national defense.

“The federal government is the entity that has the power to solve this crisis. We think we need to treat it like a wartime mobilization,” said Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO. “We think we need to invoke the Defense Production Act much more aggressively and widely. We think that is the only system and power that has the ability to solve this problem at the scale we need.”

Trump invoked the act in mid-March, but the administration has been hesitant to use its full power, explaining that private industry is stepping up production of needed supplies without being forced to do so.

Trump also likened using the powers of the act to the “nationalization” of private companies, although the act only requires companies to accept federal contracts, not federal ownership.

And the administration has taken several steps to use the act in recent days. Last week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human services announced it had used the act to secure a contract with General Motors to manufacture 30,000 ventilators. The U.S. Department of Defense said on Tuesday that a contract secured by invoking the act will produce more than 39 million N95 respirator masks over the next 90 days.

On Wednesday, the Maine labor leaders said the federal government’s lack of action on personal protective equipment, or PPE, is putting frontline workers at risk.

“We’re desperate for adequate PPE,” said Cokie Giles, president of the Maine State Nurses Association and a registered nurse at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center.

Giles noted that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lowered its safety guidelines due to a nationwide lack of PPE. “Even though we had months to prepare for the onslaught of this merciless disease, our federal administration denied its reality and squandered precious weeks that it needed to protect our health care and other frontline workers. It astounds me,” she said.

The labor leaders also called for the administration to create rules requiring employers to adopt temporary infectious disease control plans.

The call comes as hospitals nationwide have reported widespread shortages of personal protective equipment. Healthcare workers have been forced to reuse masks and respirators designed for single use. Others have constructed their own makeshift equipment. In response to the shortage, the U.S. CDC has said that bandanas or scarves should be used if masks or respirators are unavailable.

In Maine, nurses are storing used respirator masks in paper bags to wear them again the next day. Late last month, a top administrator at MaineGeneral Medical Center told staff in an email to treat protective gear “like gold.”

It’s not just hospital workers that need more protective equipment, said Sarai Briggs, a firefighter and paramedic in Saco and co-chair of the Professional Firefighters of Maine Women in the Fire Service Committee.

“We’re walking into unknown scenarios, where parties are unconscious,” Briggs said. Because of uncertainty about the condition of patients, Briggs and her fellow paramedics don’t know if there is a chance of exposure. “We’re being asked not to wear protective gear unless there is a cough, or a fever or a cold.”

The death toll from the virus in Maine rose to 24 on Wednesday, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Wednesday, the number of confirmed cases in the state stood at 770, although a lack of widespread testing means the actual number of infected cases is likely much larger.

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