Surgeon takes off his mask

March 26, 2020

In El Campo, near Houston, amateur seamstresses are sewing protective coverings to double the life of N95 face masks used by the local hospital during the new coronavirus pandemic.

In Mount Pleasant, in far northeast Texas, a chocolate factory is turning its plastic box coverings into face shields.

And in Austin, a man with a mission — who speaks Mandarin and imports pet products from overseas — has used every contact he’s got and then some to order 10,000 Chinese-made N95 masks for local emergency room doctors. He’s expecting delivery by next week.

These are just a few examples of the extraordinary measures being taken by ordinary Texans and business owners to get personal protective equipment, known as PPE, into the hands of those who need it before supplies run out for those on the front lines of the outbreak. In a matter of days, sometimes hours, they are jumping into the fight against COVID-19 — like another generation threw itself into the war effort 80 years ago.

The lightning-fast response in Texas dovetails with a national push — by corporate juggernauts like Ford and Hanes and Anheuser-Busch — to use a combination of high-tech engineering and simple retrofitting to quickly pump out PPE, hand sanitizer and other crucial medical supplies.

One of the largest fabric and craft retailers in the country, JOANN Stores, said last week it was helping hospitals secure fabric, elastic and clear vinyl for PPE. The company is also teaching people at its stores — while respecting social distancing — how to make masks safely, donating materials and serving as collection points to pick up homemade PPE.

It’s too early to say whether these voluntary efforts will help reduce the disease’s impact and prominent politicians, mostly Democrats, are calling on President Donald Trump to use wartime powers to make at least some of the response from companies non-voluntary — to force industry to ramp up production of masks, ventilators and other equipment.

Federal health authorities said in early March that the United States had a tiny fraction of the billions of masks that would be needed for a pandemic that lasts a year or more.

But the divide in Washington isn’t stopping Texans from acting now.

On Monday, GelPro CEO Robb McMahan realized he could put his sophisticated Waco manufacturing facility — which normally produces high-end kitchen mats — into the battle against the virus that is threatening countless lives and wrecking the world economy.

That same day, local officials issued a shelter-in-place order, so first McMahan had to convince them that his factory should stay open. Within a few hours he said he designed a prototype for plastic face shields. A day later he began ordering the materials to make them.

And sometime next week, after setting up his factory to produce the new products and receiving the raw materials, McMahan expects to be producing thousands of face shields each day. The shields help protect healthcare workers from splashes and sprays of bodily fluids.

GelPro CEO Robb McMahan with a prototype of a face shield.

Courtesy of Gel Pro

McMahan said he is also designing his own version of an N95 mask — meaning they will block out 95 percent of the particulate matter in the air — and once he’s able to get the raw synthetic material, McMahan says his plant could produce tens of millions of them a year if needed.

“We’re seeing a lot of cooperation between people trying to solve problems and pull together,” McMahan said. “A situation like this is bringing out the best in everyone. I keep hearing that it’s bringing out the worst in everyone but that’s not been my experience.”

As U.S. manufacturing capacity has waned in recent decades, McMahan says the desperate need for PPE demonstrates how important it is for nations to maintain the ability to make a lot of their own stuff, and he’s encouraged by the collective rush to tackle this unprecedented modern emergency.

Inspiration struck Michael Moss, CEO of the Sweet Shop in Mount Pleasant, when he was watching a TV broadcast showing nurses trying to make face shields out of what looked like household plastic wrap.

“It immediately gave me the idea: a lot of our candy manufacturing, we make high end specialty chocolates and a lot of those chocolates are packaged in clear acetate boxes,” he said. “So I reached out to my clear packaging vendor in New York on Friday of last week, and said if [I] develop a template for a shield, can you make it? And he said, ‘Absolutely.’”

They had to get past some red tape and a tight lockdown in New York, but by last Saturday they had a template. The prototype came in Monday — and they started taking orders immediately.

Moss said he’s taken orders from across the country, including New York, Illinois and Texas. Titus Regional Medical Center, a Mount Pleasant hospital that helped develop the model, will be among the recipients.

The first shipment was expected to go out Friday — but they now plan to rush a batch out Thursday because a New Jersey hospital called in desperate need. They can produce 200,000 shields a week and already are sold out for next week and booking shipments for the following week, Moss said Wednesday.

“We’ve had so many buyers break down in tears when they call us to order,” Moss said. “Those larger cities, it’s like a war zone.”

At this point, it’s all about a supply crunch, not whether money is available to buy the equipment. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, sounding the alarm about PPE earlier this week, said suppliers should know “we’ll cut you a check on the spot” if they’ll sell Texas supplies. He announced purchases of some $80 million worth and expects Texas soon will be receiving a million masks a week.

In the meantime, he said the state would welcome any useful donations. Many Texans were already on the hunt for PPE.

Austin entrepreneur Steven Blustein, a Mandarin speaker who founded the Austin-based pet products company PrideBites LLC, sprang into action last week after learning about the shortage of PPE from a physician friend. He started calling his contacts in China and found 10,000 Chinese N95 masks and began lining up funding and shipping for them. He expects delivery next week.

“If you could only see my inbox,” Blustein said. “It seems as if everyone feels the same right now. Everyone is looking. No one has any.”

He shared one email he got this week from a nurse in San Diego. She wrote: “We are in dire need of PPE. Mainly masks I believe. We have only about 17 more days for the entire hospital. I would LOVE to figure out how to help out and get more supplies … Fear is definitely setting in.”

No matter how small the individual effort, many Texans say they just want to do their part. That’s what drew in Joyce Cox, a retired amateur quilter in El Campo. A week ago Paul Soechting, a fellow church member and president of the West Wharton County Hospital District, approached Cox and asked if she and her fellow quilters could sew padded coverings to go over the standard face masks healthcare workers use.

Soon Cox and her friends and fellow Wharton County quilters were throwing themselves into battle — stitching inserts onto cotton squares that give four layers of protection and can be reused after washing. Soechting says the bandanas allow nurses at El Campo Memorial Hospital to use their N95 respirators for two days instead of one.

“I feel like that’s what I’m supposed to do. I don’t have money to help somebody but I can do physical things,” Cox said from her home in El Campo. “You can say I’m just proud to be an American and what I can do, I can do.”

By Wednesday, Soechting said the quilters — along with seamstresses from the El Campo Mennonite Church — had delivered more than 400 of the protective coverings. The hospital district president, using materials he got from Walmart and Sutherlands Lumber, said he’d be in his barn at the crack of dawn on Thursday morning for his next task: homemade face shields.

Shannon Najmabadi contributed to this story.

"A quilter, a chocolate maker, and a man on a mission: Meet the Texans improvising masks for doctors" was first published at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/03/26/texas-businesses-rush-make-ppe-response-coronavirus/ by The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state.

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