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Fire safety reps supporting health care workers across NY

By KATE MOSTACCIO

MOBILE BASE – OPWDD Fire Safety Representative and PEF member Mark Villa spent three weeks assisting a Sullivan County nursing home with PPE usage and infection control, working from a mobile trailer stationed in the parking lot.

Full personal protective equipment, or PPE, for health care workers on the frontlines during the coronavirus pandemic is absolutely critical for the health and safety of the workers and the patients.

But to be effective, it must be worn properly.

PEF member and Office for People with Developmental Disabilities fire safety representative, Mark Villa, was deployed through the NY Responds statewide emergency management network to assist a nursing home in Sullivan County with examining its procedures and practices.

“They wanted an outside perspective to make sure their policies and procedures were followed,” Villa said. “To make sure PPE was worn properly. When I got there, they had one full unit in the nursing home wing with 41 nursing home residents positive for COVID.”

Villa worked with each shift’s staff, bouncing ideas off them about how to best contain the virus and protect both patients and staff.

“They had them all on one unit, but were going in and out multiple times a day,” he said. “We made some changes. I was there for three weeks, working with the county and the nursing home administration to make sure those residents in the nursing home stayed safe.”

He worked with all the staff on proper donning and doffing of PPE.

“The biggest concern was taking it off, that they weren’t cross-contaminating,” Villa said. “If you take the gown off, and you’re touching the outside, that’s the dirty side. Nursing home staff caught on very quickly.”

He pointed the staff to YouTube videos instead of demonstrating himself.

“They show how to put it on and how to take it off instead of me putting it on and wasting the PPE,” Villa said. “The CDC also has posters and pictures of the steps.”

Villa said it has been rough on employees and having an outsider’s view has been helpful.

“It was a difficult time for the staff because they are attached to the residents,” Villa said. “They had a lot of focus and they had tunnel vision in the beginning. I had the ability to say we need to take a step back and look at this from a distance and make sure we’re following CDC and DOH guidelines.”

In addition to using his own skill set of understanding the ins and outs of PPE usage, Villa collaborated with an epidemiologist on issues of infection control. He also reached out to Sunmount DDSO’s infection control nurse for advice.

“By the end, I was a PPE control officer/infection control person,” he said. “It morphed as I progressed through the assignment.”

His work at the nursing home was rewarding.

“I felt like it was very beneficial for them and me,” he said. “I left with good contacts and they’re doing better. The implementation of staff testing was also beneficial for the nursing home residents and the staff. There was an asymptomatic spread they were seeing.”

Villa has been away from his family often since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been a long, long time away from home, away from family,” he said. “Since March 15, I have been home eight nights. That pretty much goes very similar for other fire safety reps that have been out and deployed. Normally, it’s a night here or there. These are a lot longer deployments.”

Longer – and riskier.

“Being at the testing sites is definitely a high risk,” Villa said.

At testing sites, fire safety reps have been working as decontamination specialists.

“It’s very similar to what I was doing in the nursing home,” Villa said. “Making sure staff members are taking stuff off properly. If there are any issues at the site as far as someone gets contaminated, they are there to decontaminate the staff. My hands are pretty cracked and sore because of all the hand sanitizer I’ve been using lately.”