A shipment of 2 million medical masks is expected to arrive in Colorado by Saturday, easing some of the strain on health care workers who’ve had to stretch crucial protective gear as they experience supply shortages in the face of the accelerating coronavirus crisis.

Noel Ginsburg, chairman of the state’s manufacturing and sourcing task force, said the group’s experience in purchasing and connections to manufacturers helped to get Colorado to the front of the line as China’s factories begin to restart production.

The state’s first order is for 1 million N95 masks, which filter the air, and 1 million surgical masks, which can block droplets when a person sneezes or coughs. Ginsburg said the masks are coming from a reputable supplier.

Gov. Jared Polis estimated Colorado’s health facilities use about 70,000 masks per day, so the first shipment would cover their needs for about a month. Ginsburg said he expects the Chinese sources will be able to produce a steady supply for Colorado, perhaps with some left over for other Western states that want to work together.

The task force also is working with Colorado manufacturers that want to switch to produce medical equipment and with outside suppliers for things like gowns, face shields and hand sanitizer, he said.

“The light at the end of the tunnel is not a train,” Ginsburg said Monday.

When caring for a person who could have COVID-19, providers should wear a mask, an eye shield, gloves and a gown, said Dr. Michelle Barron, medical director for infection control and prevention at University of Colorado Hospital. Most of that equipment was designed to be used once and thrown away, to prevent carrying infections to other patients or coworkers, but providers at Colorado hospitals say the unsteady flow of supplies has forced them to reuse their protection.

Volunteer Derek Wilson, right, who is ...
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Volunteer Derek Wilson, right, a medical student with the Colorado School of Medicine, takes donations people during a drive to collect personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies to address the shortages during the Covid-19 pandemic in front Empower Field at Mile High in Denver on March 22, 2020. The items collected were sterile and non-sterile gloves, hand sanitizer, bleach wipes, eye protection and goggles, masks, clear face shields, respirator masks such as N95 and N99 masks, bleach bottles or sprays, PAPR respirators, shoe covers, biohazard bags and disposable gowns.

Reusing supplies

A woman working in a Denver-area hospital, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her job, said she and her coworkers have been told to wear the same mask as they moved from patient to patient in the respiratory disease wing. If they have to leave the wing and go to another part of the hospital, they’ve been told to put the mask in a paper bag labeled with their name instead of throwing it out, she said.

“It’s pretty silly if you know much about microbiology,” because the virus could rub off from the outside of the mask onto the bag, and then on to the inside of the mask, she said.

Providers also are reusing gowns, with two gowns assigned to each patient room each day, she said. When she leaves a room where she needed to wear a plastic gown, another person on staff uses disinfecting wipes to clean the gown so it’s available for the next person.

“It seems like the best option in a really bad situation, but it’s not ideal,” she said.

An emergency room nurse at a Colorado hospital, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said there are limits to how much emergency rooms can conserve protective equipment, because the doctors and nurses have to suit up for every patient who could have COVID-19, even if it turns out that patient just has a severe cold. To avoid using up more equipment, the nurses stay in the room with the patient until they have testing results, which isn’t an ideal use of time, he said.

The emergency room nurse said his coworkers are terrified of bringing the virus home because of inadequate protection. People who work in emergency medicine are generally willing to take risks with their own health to do their jobs, but hospitals could ease the burden on their nurses if they could offer apartments or hotel rooms so they don’t have to go home or sleep in their cars, he said.

“When I look at other people and I lock eyes with them… I start wanting to cry because of the strain they’re under,” he said.

Volunteer Claire Koljack, who is a ...
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Volunteer Claire Koljack, a medical student with the Colorado School of Medicine, waits to take donations during a drive to collect personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies to address the shortages during the Covid-19 pandemic in front Empower Field at Mile High in Denver on March 22, 2020.

Stockpiling donations

The threat of diseases spreading in health care facilities isn’t hypothetical. Transmission within hospitals was a major source of new cases during the SARS epidemic in 2003, and 18 doctors already have died of COVID-19 in Italy. So far, health care providers have accounted for about 12% of all cases of the new coronavirus in Spain.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said more supplies are on their way, but they’ll go first to areas with the highest level of need. It’s not clear where Colorado would fall on the list of prioritized areas, though the state is tied with Michigan for the sixth-highest number of cases compared to population.

Colorado received about a one-day supply of masks from the Strategic National Stockpile and began shipping them to some high-need counties and tribes Monday, but the state won’t be able to rely on the federal government to make up for the equipment shortage, Polis said at a news conference on Sunday.

“We as states need to play an unprecedented role in securing our own supply chains of personal protective equipment and ventilators,” he said. “Because we’ve received so little from the national stockpile, we need Coloradans to donate any personal protective equipment — masks, gowns, gloves — to the effort if possible.”

Thousands of people dropped off donations outside Empower Field at Mile High on Sunday. The University of Colorado’s School of Dentistry has donated masks and gloves, but university spokespeople said they weren’t sure if other departments, like research labs, had turned over their supplies.

Dave Maddux, special projects manager for ...
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Dave Maddux, special projects manager for Project Cure, right, gets help from volunteer Al Youngdahl, left, as they pile up donations on pallets as part of a drive to collect personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies to address the shortages during the Covid-19 pandemic in front Empower Field at Mile High in Denver on March 22, 2020.

Making masks

Some people decided to go a step further, by making their donations. Donna Savoy, who owns a wedding gown alterations business called Donna Beth Creations, said she and her employees are sewing masks from home. They have extra time because so many brides have had to postpone their weddings, she said.

They’ve had to order 100% cotton fabric, which isn’t typically used in wedding dresses. Savoy said she and many of her 14 staff members know people working in health care and wanted to support them.

“We’re going to make thousands. As many as we can make,” she said.

Hobbyists also are churning out masks. Dena Mehling, a Denver resident who makes quilts, said she started a Facebook group to get others to join her in making masks after a friend who is a doctor asked for help. As of Monday afternoon, 300 people have joined “Dena’s Mask Making Army,” and she’s received 152 masks in two days, she said.

“Every time I look out my front door, there’s another box of masks,” she said. “I’m just amazed at how many people have responded. I thought if was just going to be five or six of my friends.”

Most of the requests have come from long-term care facilities and emergency medical technicians, but they’ve also heard from veterinarians and doctors in private practice who said they would donate some of their manufactured masks to facilities with higher needs if she could replace them with homemade masks, Mehling said.

People who want to help can donate quilting-grade 100% cotton fabric and elastic that’s one-quarter inch or one-eighth inch wide, Mehling said. They could also use drivers to help ferry masks from the makers to her porch, she said. Masks are donated to requesting facilities on a first-come, first-served basis.

“We’re happy to have people who can just cut straight lines, people who can help with drop-off,” she said.

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