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Medical Workers Need Masks So A Grassroots Army Is Checking Basements, Garages, And Warehouses

Rounding up masks from garages and construction companies and test kits from research labs, a hardscrabble grassroots army has begun supplying doctors and nurses on the front lines of the war on COVID-19.

After seeing a screenshot of a text from a frustrated nurse who had no N95 respirator masks and worried about being infected with coronavirus early this week, Julianne Dalcanton leaped into action. As chair of the University of Washington astronomy department, Dalcanton normally spends her time thinking about galaxy formation, not health care supply chains. But on Tuesday night she tweeted out a link to an online form soliciting donations of respirators from the general public that could be donated to nurses and doctors.
“These are masks you may have bought for painting projects with fumes, for blocking smoke inhalation, or for an emergency kit,” the donation page reads.
In less than 48 hours, Dalcanton said, her call out brought in some 1,700 unused masks, which are being picked up by a network of more than 15 volunteers and distributed to hospitals, nursing homes, and directly to health care workers in the Seattle area. Although not all hospitals are taking donations, she said, some facilities happily accepted the masks, noting that distribution and hospital communications are being handled by other people volunteering their time.

“I had eight masks in my basement,” Dalcanton said. “The idea was to take rapid action where we could get all those masks safely in the places they’re needed.”
As the toll from coronavirus pandemic continues to mount, already thin stockpiles of critical equipment — ranging from respirators to eye shields to hand cleaner to specialized kits required to run tests for the virus.
Although some state health agencies and hospitals have been able to access federal stockpiles of supplies, the Defense Department has begun donating supplies, and manufacturers have massively ramped up production, the needs are still tremendous. Doctors, nurses, and other health care workers tell increasingly grim stories of being forced to reuse or wash personal protective equipment, known as PPE, or of not having any at all, and many have begun begging for help online under the hashtag #GetMePPE.
Over the past few days, a new grassroots movement has emerged to try to help fill that gap, bypassing traditional procurement protocols to get critical materials directly in the hands of those who need them most. Employing Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, text messages, and email, these people have found creative ways to dig up and distribute overlooked supplies scrounged from garages, cell biology labs, and warehouses around America.
Perhaps the most hotly demanded items at hospitals and testing labs are N95 respirators. That kind of mask is rated to block 95% of airborne particles, providing a high level of protection against infection and is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization for use on health care workers performing high-risk procedures on patients who have COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Supplies of the form-fitting respirators have been particularly short because critical components are made only in Asia and supply chains have been disrupted by the pandemic. The only American manufacturer of N95 masks, based in Texas, has quadrupled production to one million per day, but it’s far below the level of demand. And the problem is exacerbated by the fact that in the outbreak’s early days, many consumers rushed to buy — and sometimes hoard — N95 masks, completely exhausting on-hand supplies at most retailers, despite the fact that medical experts have warned that they are not needed for healthy people.
On Monday, the owners of a boat dealership in Maryland donated 14,000 N95 respirator masks they’d kept for four years in a storage shed to the state health department. Co-owner Rick Levin said he’d bought the masks to donate to children undergoing chemotherapy.
On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence appealed to “construction companies to donate their inventory of N95 industrial masks” to local hospitals and to “forego additional orders of those industrial masks.” That prompted MDH Construction of Plymouth, Massachusetts, to donate 400 respirators to Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Plymouth on Wednesday, while another firm, based in Rochester, New York, made a donation of its masks to Strong Memorial Hospital on Thursday.
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