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Nassau, Suffolk scramble to buy emergency supplies for COVID-19 fight

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and Nassau Police

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder stand by donated items after two weeklong COVID-19 supply drives on Friday in Mineola. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau County has incurred nearly $1.5 million in emergency expenses for ventilators, refrigerated morgue trailers, medical N95 masks and other equipment to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, with costs expected to rise.

Suffolk County has amassed an estimated $675,915 in emergency expenses, including for N95 masks that have yet to arrive, officials said.

The spending in Nassau and Suffolk comes as the counties scramble to stockpile supplies to help hospitals, hospital workers and emergency responders.

But county procurement officials say they're facing frenzied competition from other counties, cities, states and even foreign nations that are vying for some of the same equipment.

Regular county suppliers say they are busy filling orders for private companies and the federal government. Some suppliers say they can fill county orders, but are backed up until July.

Prices for some items have skyrocketed in response to increased demand, Nassau and Suffolk officials said.

John Chiara, deputy Nassau County executive for compliance, said Nassau placed a $930,000 order for 100 ventilators with Acute Care Gases II LLC, of Wolcott, Connecticut, about two weeks ago — "before it became sort of public knowledge that there was a huge shortage."

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Nassau is seeking to buy more ventilators, "but the prices have been really skyrocketing," Chiara said.

"The federal government is really going to all the suppliers, so you're sort of left with the second and third levels of distribution, which just becomes much more expensive," Chiara said. "It’s been a real challenge; everyone in the world is buying the same stuff.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said the county has created a specialized procurement team to identify supplies the county may need for fire and emergency medical services agencies. The team includes county law enforcement officials who vet the backgrounds of suppliers.

Bellone said Suffolk has been fielding inquiries “from around the globe" — including from Taiwan, China and Japan — as it has sought to purchase N95 masks, gowns and face shields. 

In considering purchases, "you’ve got to have a sense of, one, if it’s real, two if it’s what you need and, three, is it going to get here in time," Bellone said.

"And that’s why this whole thing is crazy — this is not the way you go about doing this," Bellone said. "Instead of this national effort to supply the troops, you have this county-by-county, state-by-state approach. It’s a strange way to go to war."

Of the $1.49 million Nassau has incurred, the largest expense was for the 100 ventilators.

When the machines arrive, possibly this week, they will help form a new county stockpile at the county Office of Emergency Management in Bethpage. The ventilators will be distributed to hospitals as needed, according to county officials.

Other virus-related expenditures have included:

  • $66,450 for 30 hospital beds.
  • $194,124 for 200 Dell laptops so county employees can work remotely.
  • $99,000 for cleaning and janitorial services.
  • $38,750 for computer monitors and docking stations.

On March 23, the county legislature approved a $2.8 million measure for pandemic response that includes:

  • $247,500 for 2,500 face shields for hospitals.
  • $622,391 for 713,800 N95 masks. 
  • $75,960 for 200,000 nitrile gloves.

Nassau also is leasing five refrigerated trucks, in order to temporarily boost capacity at the county morgue from 300 bodies to 540.

Bellone said Suffolk has “handed out hundreds of thousands of N95s" the county had on hand, and has ordered more.

But "we do not have them yet," he said.

On March 17, the Suffolk County Legislature also approved the transfer of $500,000 in unused snow removal funds from the public works budget to the county Fire Rescue and Emergency Services agency to offset COVID-19 costs.

"We’re the gap fillers; where there are critical shortages we’re filling those gaps and the hope is, OK, the cavalry is coming," Bellone said.

Bellone said Suffolk is not buying ventilators, but instead is relying on the state to make those purchases.

Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman, whose office signs off on county purchase orders, said unlike superstorm Sandy in 2012, the COVID-19 crisis is “not an earthquake, tornado, hurricane, that hits a specific area at a specific time and drives costs. It’s hitting the entire nation."

Nassau and Suffolk leaders say they plan to seek federal reimbursement for pandemic-related expenses. But Schnirman warned that the resources of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, "could be exhausted more quickly.”

In an interview, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said in making supply and equipment purchases, “we want to be the backup" for hospitals and other responders.

"People are looking to us, and we want to make sure that we have the supplies that we need, whether it’s first responders or [the] health care system,” she said.

Curran, a Democrat, called the coronavirus pandemic, “an unprecedented event. This is not something that three months ago, four months ago any one of us could have foreseen, so we are jumping into action, and trying to do things as efficiently and quickly as possible.” 

Chiara said Nassau, “fortunately got a decent amount of goods before everything went south. We did actually have some goods before all the supply chains dried up.”

But “we’d probably be spending more money if we could buy this stuff,” Chiara said.

With Rachelle Blidner

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