Wayne Jones is married to a nurse. She doesn’t scare easily. Protecting herself and her peers against the coronavirus has her spooked.
“My wife is the strongest person I’ve ever met in my life,” Jones said. “To see her scared, it shocked me.”
Medical workers in Alaska say they’re scrambling to build stores of surgical masks and other personal protective equipment given the potential for the coronavirus pandemic to overrun Alaska’s capacity.
As of Sunday morning, Alaska had 102 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by the new coronavirus. One Alaskan has died in Anchorage, and another Alaskan died in Washington state after traveling there for medical care. The state announced new restrictions including an in-state travel ban and order to shelter at home on Friday.
Jones, who lives in Anchorage, is one of a growing number of volunteers and businesses stepping up to fill the gap.
He says he figured out a way to make a surgical mask with a removable, replaceable filtration layer. Now he’s got 52 volunteers sewing masks and says he’s delivered more than a thousand to nurses at all of Anchorage’s major hospitals.
His motivation is the “heartbreaking” deluge of requests pouring in from Alaska’s medical community, Jones said.
He summarized hundreds of emails this way: “I’m a nurse. We have nothing. We’re picking masks up off the floor.”
At least some medical workers in Anchorage and Mat-Su feel like they have to look out for themselves and find their own masks any way they can, according to physicians, nurses and family members of health-care workers interviewed for this story. Some say they are personally trying to hunt down supplies through private companies like 3M or Spenard Builders Supply.
Representatives of Anchorage’s hospitals say they are not experiencing a supply shortage at this point but are planning for the future.
The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium is accepting donations of PPE, a spokeswoman said. A drop box is set up outside the main entrance, and larger donations can be brought to the emergency department.
On Saturday, Anchorage’s Office of Emergency Management issued an alert asking for supplies, including masks, surgical gowns and face shields. Among the items requested: Homemade masks for use by the Anchorage Fire Department. “Recommended materials include a single layer of tightly-woven material, such as a dish/tea towel or bed sheets/antimicrobial pillowcases," the alert said.
Alaska Regional Hospital has implemented a “PPE task force” to oversee inventory, stewardship and training with representatives from education, infection prevention, central supply, nursing and environmental services, a spokeswoman said.
Providence Alaska Medical Center is accepting donations of testing swabs and viral transport media but not masks, a spokesman said in a statement. “Although there are instructions available online on how to make many of these items at home, all of the PPE our caregivers use must meet the rigorous standards of our Infection Prevention Team.”
State officials say Alaska doesn’t currently have the medical capacity to handle a surge in cases of COVID-19, should it come. That’s why they’re urging everyone to stay home.
The state is working with various community partners including nonprofits and private companies to increase the state’s medical equipment supplies, said Clinton Bennett, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. State officials are prioritizing distribution to health-care facilities treating COVID-19 patients and first responders.
Businesses are making offers of equipment on a daily basis, Bennett said. Shared Services of Alaska, a division of the state administration department, is vetting offers.
Asked if the state is coordinating all distribution of PPE from private sources, Bennett said private businesses licensed to operate in Alaska can “conduct business as they see fit. That includes making marketing and business decisions within the free market economy that we live in. We encourage local business to provide goods and services within their communities.”
Trying to help, volunteers around the state are sewing cloth surgical masks for their community hospitals.
Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna, for example, recently put out a notice “seeking donations of homemade masks from the community. Masks are to be delivered to CPH front desk in a plastic bag. These masks will be used for patients and visitor use, not CPH staff.”
Alaska Native Medical Center is asking people to drop off cloth masks, bundled in packs of 25 or less, at the hospital. The masks will be washed before they are given out to patients and visitors.
A Facebook group called “Alaska Mask Makers” had nearly 2,500 members as of Sunday. The group formed to serve as a clearinghouse for community members who want to get surgical-style masks to hospitals as well as assisted living and other groups that need them.
Volunteers over the weekend were putting together 250 masks for Mat-Su Regional Medical Center.
Group administrators on the site acknowledge the masks aren’t ideal protection or a substitute “for proper PPE" but are going to “educated members of our healthcare community who understand the risk and benefit of this option of protection. This is an unfortunate outcome of challenging times and we’re all doing the best we can."
Health officials say plain cloth masks provide little protection against the virus and alone are not protective for front-line medical workers. They consider them only a last resort in patient care, in combination with a face shield, though giving them to patients and visitors can help preserve supplies for health-care workers.
Jones said his masks are different because they include a removable fine-particle filatration insert that can protect against viruses.
He said he has enough materials to make thousands more.
Some companies, like a Palmer-based defense contractor identified by Gov. Mike Dunleavy during a press conference earlier this week, are already working under a state agreement.
Triverus LLC is making 200 test swabs a day and 100 to 150 face shields a week, according to Hans Vogel, Triverus president. His company invented a machine that cleans the decks of aircraft carriers, and is considered an essential service.
Triverus started working on changing over to make the medical equipment a few weeks ago, then heard from Dunleavy, which added to their incentive, Vogel said.
The governor originally asked about surgical masks, but Vogel said Triverus wasn’t able to make such a “highly engineered technical product” that includes a layer of charged fiber that grabs and sequesters particles. They are, however, examining the possibility of producing ventilators.
“We’re basically just vetting these different directions and kind of seeing what we can do to help,” he said.
Dunleavy at a briefing Friday said he expects the company to supply 17,000 swabs by next week and 2.5 million by June.
All of the supplies made by Triverus go to the state, which then decides how to distribute them.
Others in the private sector, however, are making their own distribution decisions.
Perfectionist Auto Sound in Anchorage is making face shields. The company’s CEO said in a Facebook post this week that the first 50 were “going to Alaska Native Medical Center as I’ve had the most demand from them. Don’t panic! I know y’all need them. 150 more to go and I have materials coming in (every day) to keep working!”
Providence also got some shields, a hospital spokesman said.
Karri Donahue, who owns a Wasilla business called Stoney Creek Charms and Engraving, hopes within the next few weeks to bring in a supply of almost 2,000 face masks, including a version of the N95.
One of her Chinese suppliers sent her a few masks to help protect her family when the coronavirus outbreak began in the United States, Donahue said. That prompted her decision to order more to share with the community.
By the end of next week, Donahue hopes to receive her Chinese shipment of 1,200 KN95s (a Korean-made product that she’s been told are medical grade) and 500 disposable masks.
Then she faces a difficult decision: Who gets them?
Donahue, who plans to charge only as much as she pays for the shipment, is hearing from providers and nurses but also immune-compromised people and friends in the Lower 48, like someone whose doctor husband has used the same N95 for a week.
“Our health care workers are the front line, and they do need to be supplied first, so they are my priority,” she said. “If I can get them in the hands of everybody else I will for sure but I would like to see our health care providers protected.”