Public health officials say personal protective equipment like face coverings and masks are going to play an important role in slowing the spread of the coronavirus as Montana makes its first steps toward reopening.
Homemade masks made by volunteers and businesses across the state have lessened the strain on supply chains for the N95 respirator masks health care workers need.
"If our public wears these, that absolutely helps the frontline workers because number one it’s not using those, using up surgical masks and N95 that they need on the front line. Plus it’s protecting others from them and helps flatten the curve and not spread the virus," says Vicky Byrd with the Montana Nurses Association.
Byrd says reusable masks help slow the spread of coronavirus by keeping respiratory droplets closer to the wearer's face and reminding them not to touch their mouth or nose, while N95 masks filter the virus out of the air.
Karen Searle has been organizing mask sewing efforts in Gallatin County and over the past month they’ve produced nearly 3,600 masks that are still in circulation in local hospitals.
"That first month, it was just a horse race. Now things are leveling off, we’re getting supply chains identified for materials. It’s amazing. It’s a grassroots volunteer brigade," Searle says.
The sewn masks are used by health care workers who do not have direct contact with COVID-19 patients. Last week, the group donated 350 masks to the City of Bozeman so that city workers can wear them as they perform essential services.
"This challenge of finding the resources beyond just the health care industry has been a very significant hurdle. I can really appreciate people within the community stepping up to provide a local solution to you know what is really much more of a broad problem," says Jon Henderson with the City of Bozeman.
In Billings a local surgeon, a dentist and the dentist’s son designed a 3-D printed reusable mask . When volunteers started printing, a single mask took about three hours to produce. Then the Billings Clinic Foundation partnered with Spark R&D in Bozeman which has the capacity to produce 2,800 masks a day.
Face masks aren't the only protective equipment in short supply.
Coaster Cycles, a bike shop in Missoula, started producing face shields for hospitals when they realized the shut downs would mean layoffs or furloughs for their workers. Face shields are a plastic sheet that helps protect the parts of the face not covered by a N95 respirator mask. These are used by workers, like dentists, who come in close contact with clients.
Coaster Cycles COO Justin Bruce says when they first started they were going to produce about 10,000 face shields.
"And the further the conversations went on 10,000 ended up being 500,000. A few days later we got another 150,000 piece contract for New York City department of health. Now we’re speaking with and working with a lot of dentists all over Montana and that is we’re where seeing orders keep coming in," says Bruce.
Fernanda M.B. Krum owns Imagine Nation Brewing in Missoula and hired 15 people last week to help make face shields in coordination with Coaster Cycles. She expects to hire about 15 more.
"I keep going through the emails to be able to hire other people. People around town who have lost their jobs and don’t know what to do," says Krum.
Gov. Steve Bullock announced on Apr. 21 Montana is getting another shipment of thousands of different kinds of protective equipment including the N95 masks, face shields and gloves from private market suppliers and the national stockpile.
Vicky Byrd says the added supplies will help but also said there will likely be a need for more.
"We need to be very thoughtful with that and keep advocating for more PPE because as we know and we’re seeing the information come out that we’re probably gonna be in line for a second wave. We’re going to have to be able to have the equipment to jump on these hotspots," Byrd says.
Byrd says the most critical action people should take to support health care workers is to continue practicing social distancing and wear a face covering in public.
For some, this might be the first time they’ve put on a mask. Byrd says wash your hands before and after you put the mask on and make sure it covers your nose, mouth and chin.