Trish Duncan struggled to believe what she was seeing.
Before her was a hand truck carrying boxes of N95s respirators, which are an important part of the personal protective equipment worn by health care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 coronavirus battle.
The respirators are in short supply across the country, and Duncan, senior director of surgical and endoscopy services for Tidelands Health, wasn’t expecting a shipment. Yet here were 4,400 of them.
“I was so excited,” Duncan said. “It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, look at all these masks.’ They looked like they had come right from the factory.”
Instead, the 4,400 N95s delivered to Duncan were among the first to be returned to Tidelands Health through the health system’s respirator sewing initiative. In March, more than 2,000 community volunteers generously signed up to sew new elastic bands on tens of thousands of new, never-used respirators whose straps had deteriorated while in storage since a previous public health emergency. Conway-based Tara Grinna Swim & Resort Wear also stepped up, volunteering to retrofit 35,000 units at its factory with the help of volunteers.
Now, after undergoing an intensive quality control check and sterilization, the retrofitted N95s are being distributed to care providers across the health system. An N95 provides a higher degree of protection than a surgical mask in clinical situations where aerosols – or droplets – are produced in high concentration.
“When I found out the community was doing these respirators, it was just so heartwarming,” Duncan said. “It just means so much for our community to have done this for us.”
Abby Davis, a nurse in the critical care unit at Tidelands Georgetown Memorial Hospital, said she and her colleagues are incredibly thankful to all the volunteers and organizations who helped with the respirator sewing initiative. The critical care unit at Tidelands Georgetown was the first unit to use the retrofitted masks for patient care.
“We are all super appreciative the community came together like that,” she said. “People are just amazing.”
The effort has reduced concern among care providers about the availability of personal protective gear, she said. The retrofitted respirators are expected to extend the health system’s supply by several weeks.
“That was a huge relief,” she said. “In the beginning, we were thinking we wouldn’t have many masks, and we were kind of worried.”
She said it’s virtually impossible to discern any difference between the retrofitted N95s and the units that come directly from the factory. Both are clean and function the same way.
“They just seem like masks,” she said. “You can’t tell there is anything different about them.”
The community’s support for the respirator sewing initiative, donations of food, church-led hospital parking lot prayer vigils and other efforts have lifted spirits within Tidelands Health as the not-for-profit organization battles the COVID-19 pandemic, said Ranee Pender, director of clinical care at Tidelands Georgetown.
“The sense of community is overwhelmingly positive,” Pender said. “Spirits are high, and we are extremely grateful.”