Keeping City Workers Safe in the Wake of COVID-19

April 13, 2020 - (8 min read)

Protecting health care providers, first responders and other essential employees from the COVID-19 virus is vital to slowing the spread of the pandemic. The CDC has advised that everyone should be wearing cloth masks in public. Accordingly, all front-line staff that interact with the public need some level of personal protective equipment (PPE). However, cities, towns and villages are having a difficult time acquiring PPE for their essential workers including police officers, firefighters, emergency medical service providers, health care providers and others. This equipment is essential for protecting individuals from exposure to COVID-19 and other potentially dangerous substances.

What is Personal Protective Equipment? 

As defined by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is worn to minimize injury or illness in the workplace. In the context of the coronavirus, PPE is being used primarily to describe the equipment needed by medical professionals treating known cases of coronavirus. However, other essential staff, like first responders and employees who regularly interface with the public require PPE. The PPEs are incorporated into the uniform of the health care providers, first responders and other government employees to provide an appropriate level of protection while allowing the worker to carry out essential activities. Some of the common components for effective PPE include:

  • respiratory equipment (e.g., air purifying respirators and supplied air respirators),
  • protective garments, (e.g., encapsulated suits, coveralls, and overgarments); and
  • protective apparel (e.g., face masks, goggles, face shields, protective hoods, boots, and gloves).

Federal Efforts to Increase the Availability of PPEs 

According to the Center for Disease Control, “PPE shortages are currently posing a tremendous challenge to the US healthcare system because of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Healthcare facilities are having difficulty accessing the needed PPE and are having to identify alternate ways to provide patient care.” To increase the availability of PPEs, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) on March 27, which provides millions in additional funding to states to purchase PPEs, but the lack of appropriate equipment continues to be a significant issue.

On March 30, FEMA also established the “Supply Chain Stabilization Task Force” to address the limited supply of critical protective and life-saving equipment.  According to FEMA, “the task force’s primary effort is the sourcing of personal protective equipment, ventilators and other critical resources to respond to requests by states, tribes and territories.” FEMA’s actions are focused on four efforts: preservation, acceleration, expansion, and allocation.


How fast will new PPE supplies become available? 

Through Project Air Bridge, FEMA is expediting movement of supplies from the global market to medical distributors across the U.S. The air bridge was created to reduce the time it takes for U.S. medical supply distributors to receive personal protective equipment and other critical supplies from their suppliers. To reduce shipping time, FEMA is covering the cost to fly supplies to the U.S. from overseas factories.

According to FEMA, “as of April 8, 21 flights have landed, containing critically needed PPEs: gloves, gowns, goggles and masks. An additional 49 flights are scheduled over the next three weeks. These flights are arriving at operational hub airports for distribution to hotspots and nationwide locations through regular supply chains. Per agreements with distributors, 50 percent of supplies on each plane are for customers within the hotspot areas with most critical needs. The remaining 50 percent is fed into distributors’ normal supply chain to their customers in other areas nationwide. Department of Health and Human Services and FEMA determine hotspot areas based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.”

Working with Federal Partners 

There are several steps local governments should take alongside federal partners to ensure they have enough PPEs for their first responders, health care providers and other government workers.

  1. Identify which workers need PPEs (health care providers, law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical professionals, coroners, corrections workers, social workers, childcare providers, food service workers, etc.)
  2. Identify the types and quantity of PPEs needed for each type of worker that should be protected. For instance, grocery store workers should have face masks at a minimum, but meatpacking plant workers should have full sets of disposable masks, gowns and gloves. First responders need respirators (N95 or better) and proper protective clothing. Surgical masks are sufficient for childcare workers in most instances, unless they’re in a hospital setting.
  3. Conduct and inventory of the PPE that is currently available.
  4. Inform your state point of contact that has been assigned to work with FEMA about the types of PPEs needed. If your state point of contact is not responding to the PPE request, you should contact your Regional FEMA Office.
  5. Contact the district office for your Member of Congress and ask them for help in expediting your PPE request.
  6. Know what federal grants are available for PPEs. Most grants can’t be combined, so you will need to determine the best type of grant that is available for the type of PPE needed, such as for law enforcement the CARES Act provided an additional $850 million for Bureau of Justice Assistance Grants, and for firefighters the Act provided additional $100 million for Assistance to Firefighter Grants.
  7. Unfortunately, the shortage in PPEs has also led to some illegal activities including price gouging and hoarding. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has already identified the hoarding of various types of PPEs and is working with the Department of Health and Human Services authority under Defense Production Act to immediately acquire the equipment and make it available to the hardest hit states and local governments. Local governments should be aware of the potential for price gouging and hoarding of PPE equipment and work with their law enforcement agencies to report these activities to the FBI.

What can local governments do to help keep workers safe and encourage safe behavior?  

There are several important steps that local governments can take to ensure the safety of their workforce, support healthcare professionals on the front lines, and promote adhering to OSHA and CDC guidance.

Create open, regular communication with our healthcare providers.

Your local healthcare organization are the experts on what type of PPE are needed in your area for frontline healthcare workers.

Highlight: CityHealth and Tips to Get Smart on COVID19 Fast

Understand the PPE landscape.

The role that your organization will play in supplying PPE will depend on a variety of factors including your capacity, ongoing efforts in the region, and your role working with healthcare providers. Larger cities with extra capacity may decide to serve as hubs to coordinate the supply of PPE in their region while others may decide to partner with a community organization more familiar with the supply chain.

Highlight: National PPE Coalition

Use your communication tools.

Many cities have set up landing pages or other online portals for individuals looking to donate or sell PPE, essential businesses looking to acquire equipment, as well as helpful information to answer questions about what PPE is required or recommended.

Highlight: LA Protects

Support your essential staff.

In addition to trying to provide protecting equipment, several local leaders and private sector companies have been providing hazard pay to front line, essential workers. Some examples include:

  • Atlanta, GA: The cities’ front line workers will receive $500 per month through June in hazard pay.
  • Birmingham, AL: The Birmingham City Council voted to provide a 5% raise based on hours worked for essential staff who work directly with the public. 
  • Baltimore, MD: The City of Baltimore will be providing emergency personnel (fire, police, and EMS) a $200 biweekly stipend and $100 biweekly stipend for non-sworn essential staff.

Local governments must continue to encourage control and prevention measures to reduce the risk of workers from exposure to COVID-19.  First responders, health care providers, food service workers and other government workers should be trained about the sources of exposure to the virus, the hazards associated with exposure, and appropriate workplace protocols in place to prevent or reduce the likelihood of exposure. As the pandemic continues to spread, local leaders must remain vigilant in protecting their workforce and supporting their communities’ front-line staff.

About the Authors:

Yucel Ors smallYucel (“u-jel”) Ors is the Legislative Director for Public Safety and Crime Prevention at the National League of Cities. Follow Yucel on Twitter at @nlcpscp.



SR Stacy Richardson is the Program Director for Urban Innovation at the National League of Cities.




Erin_Rian_readyErin Rian is Director of Member Services at NLC Mutual Insurance Company.