Hospitals Scramble for DIY Fixes to Critical Mask Shortages - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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There's no end in sight to the shortage of masks. These DIY alternatives might be our only hope.

By Joshua Eferighe

Eggs: gone. Sanitizer: gone. Toilet paper: gone. Even the dog food shelf is empty. That’s life today for millions — if not billions — of people worldwide when they head to grocery stores amid a near-global quarantine and mandated social distancing. Mira Reid faces a more life-threatening challenge: a shortage of masks.

The 29-year-old California-based emergency room professional is part of a creaking American health care system grappling with shortages of essential personal protective equipment (PPE) as it deals with mounting coronavirus patients. By Thursday night, the U.S. was reporting more than 85,000 cases — more than any other country. Now hospitals, doctors, health care organizations and ordinary citizens are scrambling to find creative fixes for a shortage of the most basic protective gear: masks.

Last week, the University of Nebraska Medical Center began trying to sterilize used masks using ultraviolet light, so doctors and nurses could wear them again. Deaconess Hospital in Evansville, Indiana, has requested citizens to sew surgical masks, even putting out advice on how to do so in compliance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention norms. Mark Lewis, a hematologist and oncologist at Intermountain Healthcare in Utah, put out a step-by-step tutorial last week on using at-home materials to stitch masks. So have others, such as nursing professionals at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Citizen-led initiatives — such as GetusPPE.org, DonatePPE.org, Mask Match and PPE Link — are emerging too, seeking to crowdsource masks. A volunteer group called Mask Crusaders connects those with extra masks to hospitals that need them. The state of Texas, much like New York has done with sanitizer, is working with prisoners to make masks. And the Henry Ford Health System, a major medical services provider in Detroit, is creating homemade face masks and eye protection using everyday things, like cloth, elastic and bleach. It hopes to produce 500-1,000 of these masks every day to help meet the shortages it faces at its facilities.

“We hope to replenish our stock of regularly produced masks as quickly as possible,” Dr. Scott Dulchavsky, CEO of the Henry Ford Innovation Institute, said in a blog post, “to bridge the brief gap between now and when we receive our regular masks.”

These initiatives won’t replace the need for professionally manufactured, standardized masks, caution experts. And ordinary citizens keen to help need to use only those tutorials that are put out by legitimate hospitals and known medical practitioners — and avoid other YouTube videos that suggest, for instance, ways to turn a bra into a mask. Otherwise the masks you make won’t be accepted by hospitals — and you could put yourself at risk by wearing them.

Most hospitals plan to use these homemade or creatively sourced masks only as backups. But they could prove critical, given what we’ve seen so far. More than 4,800 medical professionals in Italy — and 3,400 in China — have been infected. And in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has publicly pleaded with “companies to be creative to supply the crucial gear our health care workers need.”

While there are different theories on whether surgical masks are helpful, or if only N95 masks — with a very close facial fit and very efficient filtration of airborne particles — are effective, hospital rule books are unanimous on some protocols. Surgical masks aren’t meant to be repeatedly reused.

But those standards are breaking down under the weight of the pandemic. And even the CDC is now saying that if hospitals become overwhelmed, mask donations and sterilizing efforts can turn pivotal. That’s particularly so because there’s little clarity on when standard mask production will be able to meet the skyrocketing demand. Most masks used in America’s health care system are manufactured in China and Mexico, and the pandemic has broken key links in the global supply chain.

Many health care institutions have policies in place right now where only those who are to handle a COVID-19 patient are allowed to wear the N95 masks. But that doesn’t account for carriers who might not have been showing symptoms. If all patients aren’t being treated as possible carriers and all health care professionals aren’t being protected, some will inevitably fall through the cracks. 

Reid says that while her hospital has yet to run out of any masks, they’re now allowed only one per shift — no matter how many people they deal with in that period. “You’re not getting the N95 unless you’re giving a breathing procedure or swabbing the patient,” she says.

States and the federal government are leaning in to try and address the crisis — though critics accuse President Donald Trump of acting too slowly. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has signed an executive order under which all hospitals, surgery centers and clinics — even dentists and veterinarians — must inform the state’s PPE coordinator of any extra PPE supplies they have. Vice President Mike Pence — leading the federal government’s coronavirus response — has called for industrial masks used on construction sites to be shared with health care workers.

And the disaster declaration for the state of New York approved by Trump last week allows Cuomo’s team to seek ventilators, hospital beds and other needed equipment urgently for New York City. With more than a third of America’s total cases, New York state is easily the worst hit in the country, though those numbers might partly be impacted by the fact that it’s conducting more tests than any other state.

But while the severity of the mask shortage might vary from region to region, it’s a threat looming over America’s overall response to the coronavirus crisis. And a dose of creativity might be the ingredient the country needs to overcome that challenge.

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