As the role of emergency management in this pandemic moves from response to recovery, Wisconsin Emergency Management (WEM) is transferring functions to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) for long-term administration, including the distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE). Through the pandemic, the state allocated approximately 1.5 million N95 masks, 23.2 million gloves, 2.4 million gowns, and 538,000 face shields. The effort began swiftly and involved almost every state agency.

“Working this disaster was different — it meant setting up a system to procure PPE, competing with every state to get what was necessary to protect first responders, including doctors and nurses on the frontlines of the pandemic,” said Bureau of Response and Recovery Director Paul Cooke. “It was a challenge.”

None of this could have been completed without the state’s efforts and support.

“PPE distribution was a whole community, whole state event,” said Dr. Darrell Williams, Wisconsin Emergency Management administrator. “We had local agencies donate supplies and time to support the PPE distribution process, but more was needed, and our county and tribal emergency managers stepped up and met that challenge for the people of Wisconsin.”

Many counties were already supporting other communities with supplies from their own stockpiles.

“It was apparent to me that we made a difference when various agencies throughout the county reached out requesting help, many of them had no idea what emergency management was,” said Phil Rentmeester, Marathon County emergency manager. “I also know we made a difference after one or two of the recipients nearly teared up upon receiving items as well as receiving thank you cards and emails from others.”

To distribute the state supplies uniformly, a plan was crafted to ship out PPE from a central warehouse in Madison to county and tribal emergency managers, who would then distribute supplies in their areas.

“We developed a simple formula that combined the population and the number of hospital beds in each county and tribe,” said Greg Engle, WEM Bureau of Planning and Preparedness director. “Counties and tribes could request PPE through a bi-weekly survey and receive a share based upon the formula and the amount of stock that was available that week.”

Engle said it took a tremendous amount of effort by the operations, warehouse, and procurement teams working together to keep the PPE items flowing week after week. A task force was needed to manage this huge undertaking.

“We knew we were making a difference by supplying critical resources by the gratitude we received from the long-term care facilities that were receiving it,” said Donna Haugom, PPE Task Force member and Jefferson County emergency management director. “All of the facilities we provided PPE to were very thankful for the needed supplies to reduce the spread of COVID within the facilities.”

In addition to frontline healthcare workers and first responders, the most vulnerable populations were given priority.

“These PPE supplies were a lifeline for us,” said Gerard Bodalski, Alden Estates administrator, a transitional care facility in Jefferson County. “In the early stages of the pandemic our regular suppliers were overwhelmed with orders and couldn’t meet our needs. Jefferson County’s Office of Emergency Management came through for us!”

To help meet the growing demand for PPE, the state established a website where companies could donate supplies or offer them to the state for purchase. This procurement process allowed the state to secure critical resources. The process was a coordinated effort involving several state entities, including WEM, DHS, and the Wisconsin National Guard.

“I’m incredibly proud of the work WEM, DHS, and our Wisconsin National Guard have done together these last 15 months, from distributing PPE to our statewide contact tracing and testing efforts to helping ensure Wisconsin has been a regional and national leader for getting shots in arms,” Gov. Tony Evers said. “We simply could not have responded to the coronavirus pandemic without all of their good work and support.”

The State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) will be ending the bi-weekly PPE distribution process and transitioning long-term operations to DHS as of June 25.  Going forward county and tribal emergency managers are being asked to encourage local agencies to purchase supplies through the open market.

“With PPE supply chain back to normal, the expectation is for facilities to purchase their PPE,” said Joe Cordova, Emergency Response Coordinator for DHS. “In urgent cases healthcare facilities will be able to send an order form with their PPE needs directly to DHS for processing and fulfillment.”

While emergency management is transitioning from its role in supplying PPE to critical sectors, WEM and its partners will remain ready to support those needs in the future. The work done over the past 16 months has helped to build the critical infrastructure and relationships that will allow them to ramp up these efforts again in the future, if needed.

“In emergency management, we are always told that the relationships we make will aid us in times of a disaster,” said September Murphy, PPE Task Force member and emergency manager in Lincoln County. “Having the opportunity to provide these critical resources to our partners only strengthened this relationship and built a foundational trust that will only grow and foster a more prepared community.”

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