It is mission complete for Micah Welintukonis of Coventry, a Purple Heart recipient and retired sergeant first class who Friday finished handing out 9,000 face masks across the state that were given to him by a Connecticut couple.
East Hampton Volunteer Ambulance Chief Donald Scranton accepted a gift of 100 masks Thursday from Welintukonis, who was asked not to divulge the source of these donations. Masks are vitally needed protective equipment for medical professionals working on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.
In total, the couple purchased 300,000 masks, said Welintukonis, who also distributed 1,000 using own funds.
Welintukonis, who was severely wounded in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2012, was discharged in a medically induced coma and returned home. He had to be resuscitated twice. When he retired, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney recognized him for his heroism.
Welintukonis distributed these much-needed medical supplies to Connecticut Children’s, Hartford Hospital, Manchester Hospital and St. Francis Hospital; police officials in Manchester, East Hartford and Windsor, as well as Bolton Fire Rescue, LifeStar, state police Troop H and many others.
The former Coventry councilman is volunteering his time, delivering them with his own car, and paying for the gasoline.
But don’t call Welintukonis a hero. “I don’t view myself as that. It’s almost the same reception: ‘You’re a hero.’ If a firefighter goes in, risks his life, comes out badly injured, but saves four people, he’s a hero. It makes news.
“Now you’re handing out masks, and it’s the same level,” he said.
He does admit hearing about philanthropic efforts is a welcome contrast to countless accounts and news stories about the virus upending people’s lives.
“Good news needs to get out there, especially in times of crisis. It needs to be shared and give people hope. People do care. We’re trying to work together and we’re going to get through this,” he said.
The anonymous couple, who learned Welintukonis bought and distributed those 1,000 face masks with his own money, realized they’d found the one person who could make their wish a reality.
After seeing posts and photographs all over social media in which people were sharing information about which stores were out of essential items and others that still had stock remaining, Welintukonis became frustrated. “I was following it. Three hours later, everything clears out.”
Welintukonis, a former military medic and paramedic, received permission from the owner of Highland Park Market Coventry to buy three-quarters of the toilet paper supplies — 1,000 rolls — so he could stand outside and hand them out free, two at a time, to customers leaving the grocery store.
“That way, more could go out, and people wouldn’t be left behind with this unneeded craziness to get toilet paper,” he said. He made sure to wear gloves and stood far away from everyone.
The asking price for items such as toilet paper, cleaning products and other essential items online has skyrocketed. “It’s outrageous. I saw four cans of Lysol sold on eBay for $15,000,” Welintukonis said.
When it comes to his own safety, Welintukonis’ practices may be considered ultra fastidious by some. “This virus is one-billionth our size and easily transmitted. Every time I do a drop or get gas, I have an insane routine of wiping everything I touch down with disinfectant wipes,” he said.
That includes door handles, inside and out, keys, fingers, fingernails, his cell phone and gear shifter. “And if I think there’s the slightest possibility I missed something, I repeat the cycle and then vigorously Purell my hands,” he explained.
Scranton said some hospitals are now requiring all emergency personnel and patients entering the hospital by ambulance to wear a face mask. First responders must don these medical masks for all calls, Scranton said.
If a patient is experiencing symptoms of coronavirus or has tested positive for the illness, both medical workers and the sick individual must cover their faces with a N95 respirator. These filter out 95 percent of airborne particles.
First responders are being directed on any type of complaint that is respiratory in nature to act as though the person is positive for COVID-19, Scranton said.
Welintukonis’ donation to the East Hampton station will allow the ambulance company to service 33 more calls, which typically involve two EMTs and a patient, Scranton said.
“This will greatly help us out in taking care of our members and community, and we appreciate his efforts during a time when this equipment is so scarce,” the company posted on its Facebook page.
As he went across Connecticut to drop off supplies, Welintukonis was welcomed warmly. “People are extremely grateful. Then you hear what’s going on inside hospitals.
“What I find ultimately shocking is the regulations that OSHA and other organizations have in place. Three months ago, wearing the same masks, let alone going from one patient room to another, that medical professional would probably have been severely disciplined if not fired.
“Now it’s not just from one room to another, it’s room to room to room to room,” Welintukonis said. “Some of them have had the same masks for a week,” personnel have told him.
For the past several days, Scranton been driving to Hartford to a pickup site the state created for distribution of these essential protections. Friday morning, he waited an hour and 40 minutes in line. When it came for his turn, Scranton was handed 13 masks out of a box, which typically contain 50. Still, he’s grateful for every one.
He was also allotted four gowns, five N95 masks and 24 face shields for his workers. “They didn’t even know they would get those supplies until the morning,” said Scranton, who still makes the drive daily. “I’m concerned by the fact that, if I don’t go up there, it might be viewed as you have enough supplies. Thirteen is better than nothing.”
A microbiologist explained the coronavirus to Welintukonis by using the flu vaccine as an example.
“If you have 10 darts with suction cups and you throw them against a glass window, all 10 darts have to stick in order for you to catch the flu. With coronavirus, only one of the 10 has to stick,” Welintukonis said.
Medical experts are conflicted on whether COVID-19 is airborne and can be transmitted through simply breathing or speaking in addition to sneezes and coughs as previously reported. “Every nurse and every doctor I meet are saying it’s airborne,” Welintukonis said.
There is a possibility the donors may make buy more masks in the future. Health care and emergency workers must present a valid identification from their place of business when they’re accepting items.
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