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East Lyme neighbors support one another during 'calm before the storm'

East Lyme — When 12-year-old Zoe Peterson saw on the news last week that volunteers were stepping up nationwide to sew cotton face masks to help shield medical workers from COVID-19, she knew she could pitch in.

A sewer herself, Zoe said it didn’t take her long to make 35 masks last week. But it was also a personal connection she had with her neighbors, Tina and Steven Conlin, as well as their 8-year-old triplets, that inspired her to take action.

Both Tina and Steven work in emergency rooms for the Middlesex Health system. Tina, who is an emergency room nurse, works at a hospital branch in Westbrook, while Steven, a physician’s assistant, works in all three of the Middlesex Health emergency rooms in Westbrook, Marlborough and Middletown.

Both work long hours and simultaneously are trying to care for and protect their triplets from the coronavirus without the help of their parents, who, for their own safety, must stay away from their families during this time.

Making the cotton masks, Zoe reasoned, could at least show her neighbors she was thinking of and supporting them. But she also hoped the masks would help her neighbors and their colleagues protect themselves at work, especially as health care workers are most at risk to contract the virus and when personal protective equipment, or PPE, is running low.

At a news briefing in Hartford on Monday, Connecticut health system presidents and CEOs spoke about PPE shortages and how they have been making efforts to secure supplies with state officials before a surge of COVID-19 patients, now predicted to arrive around Easter, hits the state’s health care system.

Marna Borgstrom, CEO of Yale New Haven Health, said based on how her system is "running through PPE at a fairly fast clip," it has about 10 to 14 days of supplies left.

Lamont said Monday the state had received a "small delivery" of equipment from the federal government, including 111,000 N95 respirator masks and 146,000 surgical masks, and 50 ventilators arrived Tuesday.

"We are in significant need of PPE," Jeffrey Flaks, president and CEO of Hartford Healthcare, said at the briefing.

As of Tuesday, 608 coronavirus patients were hospitalized in Connecticut.

Cotton masks can never fully protect as well as medical-grade surgical or N95 masks. However, volunteers nationwide have been making the masks with the idea that some protection is better than none, and that hospital workers can wear the handmade masks over hospital-issued ones, which are being rationed, to allow them to be used longer.

On Tuesday, Conlin’s colleagues did exactly that. They placed Zoe's colorful cotton masks over their hospital-issued ones, which they now have been instructed to re-wear until “torn or soiled” in an effort to conserve as many as possible for the expected surge.

“How great is it to get a donation from a 12-year-old kid who on their own wanted to help?” Conlin said. “She is a quiet girl, a girl of a few words, but how sweet she is to do this.”

Zoe also will start sewing head caps for the ER staff in the coming week.

Though the expected surge that she and her colleagues have been preparing for has not yet hit Connecticut hospitals, “it’s now the calm before the storm,” Conlin said.

Besides being recently required to wear a hair net and one surgical mask for the entirety of their shifts, hospital workers also are being asked to re-use the much-coveted N95 respirators — which filter out 95% of air particulates a wearer breathes in and out — over repeated encounters with patients. The devices now are being rationed only for high-risk situations, such as when a patient might be more persistently coughing or for other medical procedures.

“We were recently trained on how to properly don and doth the masks for re-use and how to properly put them in paper bags to keep them safe while not in use,” Conlin said. “It all feels so strange because we are so used to wearing one mask per patient. Now we wear surgical masks all day and save our N95 masks in paper bags between uses.”

Conlin said ER staff recently were administered “duck-bill shaped” N95 masks instead of their typical green ones, which ran out.

All the changes and preparations already have been taking a toll on some of her colleagues, some of whom are experiencing extreme anxiety, she said. 

“We are leaning on each other and supporting each other as much as possible,” Conlin said. “The anxiety comes from being not only on the front line, but also the anxieties of home life, having to worry about home-schooling your children now, keeping them safe and keeping away from your parents.”

“You think of all the people who are home and who are anxious, but we are dealing with all the same anxieties while working on the front lines,” she said. “And then we have to go home to our kids and not kiss our kids, we can’t cuddle with them too much.”

When asked about how she was holding up, Conlin said, “I’m trying to stay informed, but you also have to dig deep and take a breath."

"It‘s hard because you took an oath and you want to save lives and take care of people," she said. "But you also want to protect your family. If we get sick, who’s going to take care of and save these people? That is weighing heavy on all the nurses and providers.”

But acts of kindness and the support from her East Lyme community and neighbors, such as Zoe, Conlin said, is helping her and her family get through.

“It’s been amazing how our East Lyme community has stepped up to make sure my family and I are all getting through,” Conlin said. “It’s a trying time, but I think we will get through this.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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