Cook County distributing 240,000 face masks to suburban first responders

The protective gear was donated by the U.S. Department of Defense in coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Toni Preckwinkle said.

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Officers with the Cook County Department of Emergency Management and Regional Security distribute N95 face masks and other personal protective equipment to suburban law enforcement agencies and fire departments at the county’s Emergency Operation Center in Oak Forest, Tuesday, April 14, 2020.

Officers with the Cook County Department of Emergency Management and Regional Security distribute N95 face masks and other personal protective equipment to suburban law enforcement agencies and fire departments at the county’s Emergency Operation Center in Oak Forest, Tuesday, April 14, 2020.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Suburban police and fire departments Tuesday began stocking up on the 240,000 N95 masks Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said officials will be distributing in the next two days to combat coronavirus.

“At the beginning of this year most of us had no idea that a mask could literally be the difference between life and death, but today, that’s our reality,” Preckwinkle said at a news conference announcing the county’s distribution of the masks.

“We have an obligation to come together as a community and, as one Cook County, to fight this pandemic with everything we have.”

The protective gear was donated by the U.S. Department of Defense in coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Preckwinkle said at the county’s Emergency Operation Center in Oak Forest, where she was joined by first responders from the suburbs.

Bellwood Fire Department firefighter James Harty loads up an ambulance with 37 boxes of N95 face masks, distributed by officers with the Cook County Department of Emergency Management and Regional Security at the county’s Emergency Operation Center in Oak Forest, Tuesday, April 14, 2020.

Bellwood Fire Department firefighter James Harty loads up an ambulance with 37 boxes of N95 face masks, distributed by officers with the Cook County Department of Emergency Management and Regional Security at the county’s Emergency Operation Center in Oak Forest, Tuesday, April 14, 2020.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Bellwood Fire Department firefighter James Harty Tuesday loaded up an ambulance with 37 boxes, filled with 160 masks each.

The Alsip Fire Department stocked a trailer with 15 boxes. The South Chicago Fire Department packed a truck bed with boxes containing 2,300 face masks. And the Homewood Police Department loaded up an SUV with 5,000 pairs of gloves and more than 1,000 face masks.

Meanwhile, Morton Grove Police Chief Michael Simo and Deputy Chief Michael Weitzel packed Weitzel’s Dodge Charger with boxes containing more than 1,000 masks, negotiating how the boxes would fit as they played a pseudo-game of Tetris.

Morton Grove Police Department Chief Michael Simo (right) and Deputy Chief Michael Weitzel load up about 1,000 N95 face masks into Weitzel’s Dodge Charger at the Cook County Emergency Operation Center in Oak Forest, Tuesday, April 14, 2020.

Morton Grove Police Chief Michael Simo (right) and Deputy Chief Michael Weitzel load up about 1,000 N95 face masks into Weitzel’s Dodge Charger at the Cook County Emergency Operation Center in Oak Forest, Tuesday, April 14, 2020.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Matteson Police Chief Michael Jones said the masks are “probably one of the most vital pieces of equipment and tools” needed.

“Often as smaller agencies, especially in a corridor that has been hit so hard by this pandemic, it is difficult for us to get these resources,” Jones said. “So we depend on our big brothers and sisters, under the leadership of Cook County Board President Preckwinkle and FEMA to assist us in getting those resources, because I want to point out these are not just protecting the first responders, these are also protecting their families. These are protecting the residents to eliminate the spread and contamination that this disease is bringing us.”

William Barnes, head of the county’s Emergency Management and Regional Security, said the new masks “supplements out local reserves.”

“We have a reserve of personal protective equipment that we continue to replenish through a variety of sources, those are through donations, purchases ... but I can honestly say the 240,000 masks that we received from FEMA, by and large exceeds any influx that we’ve had,” he said.

The county has already doled out roughly 700,000 pieces of personal protective equipment, including gloves, hair covers and foot booties within the last month.

Contributing: Ashlee Rezin

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