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N95 masks
PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Hospitals are experiencing shortages of N95 masks and other protective equipment amid the COVID-19 outbreak, prompting members of the community to collect unused masks to donate, or to sew substitute cotton masks.

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

A shortage of N95 masks and other equipment at hospitals in the area is prompting Montclair residents to hold collection drives or resort to 3D printing.

New Jersey’s hospitals are experiencing shortages of personal protective equipment, known as PPEs. This includes equipment such as N95 surgical masks.

“We continue to evaluate hospital supplies and bed capacity every day.  The hospital is working with our vendors diligently for necessary personal protective equipment, and we are carefully following guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to safely care for our patients,” Mountainside Hospital said in a statement released on Friday, March 20.

Montclair resident Melissa Deutsch is coordinating a mask collection. She sent out a message via social media asking people and businesses with a supply of unused masks to donate them.

Deutsch heard from an acquaintance at Hackensack University Medical Center that the hospital is in need of N95 masks.

She sent out an appeal via social media asking residents to check their homes for any masks that may be left over from home improvement projects.

As of March 24, Deutsch had received 100 masks.

What she learned, she said, was that residents do not appear to be hoarding masks. Rather, she said, the masks were largely left over from when the donors had done construction or improvement projects at their homes.

She also reached out to local hardware stores. The stores were out of masks but agreed to notify her once a new shipment came in. However, she said, she was advised that suppliers may stop shipping N95 masks to hardware stores, due to the increased need at hospitals.

Deutsch has also received mask donations from construction workers and site supervisors. “They’re actually taking away from what their own staff would have,” she said.

The Montclair Ambulance Unit put out an appeal for donations, both of money and supplies, on social media on March 24. “MAU is on the front line of this very challenging COVID-19 pandemic, and our dedicated EMTs are continuing to work tirelessly during this crisis. The daily response and care to those in distress, ill and injured is paramount. We’re also experiencing a medical supply shortage due to an increased use of personal protective equipment such as N95 respirators, face shields, gowns, and gloves,” the appeal said.

Rebecca Harris Lee reached out to Bnai Keshet and learned that the synagogue had some N95 masks that are used for certain tasks at the synagogue.

She said she felt an obligation to do what she could to help medical professionals. “I was in a bad accident, they saved my life, now it’s my turn,” she said.

Lee said that members of the community are looking into whether it would be possible to use 3D printers to produce masks. There are some Montclair residents who have their own printers, she said, while the Montclair schools have about 30 printers.

In addition, she said, the Maker Depot in Totowa is already making masks with its own 3D printers.

Jon Bonesteel acquired some prototype mask patterns from the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark and has been printing them out. As of Tuesday, Bonesteel said he had printed some test masks and had sent them to the medical school to see if they met the required standards.

Montclair Design Week has started a collection drive for N95 masks.

“Spread the word to our neighborhood doctors, dentists, contractors, painters, and artists who may have surplus supplies that they can donate during this hospital shortage. Do the right thing and give what you have,” the organizers said in an announcement about the drive.

Interested donors should contact Montclair Design Week to set an appointment for masks to be dropped off. Appointment times may be arranged through Montclair Design Week’s SignUp.com page, or by calling 973-744-2544, option 3.

At the state level, the New Jersey State Police launched a PPE drive on Monday. Masks and other items will be distributed to medical and public safety personnel around the state.

Besides collecting N95 masks, members of the community who know how to sew have been invited to make cloth masks and send them to hospitals and public safety agencies, though it is cautioned that cloth masks are not as effective as N95s at controlling the spread of illness.

On March 24, Gov. Phil Murphy issued an executive order requiring the cancellation of all elective surgeries and elective invasive procedures.

Doctors’ offices, dentist offices, institutions of higher learning and other institutions are asked to take an inventory of their equipment and supplies, including masks, respirators, and ventilators.

“Any business, non-hospital healthcare facility, or institution of higher learning in possession of PPE, ventilators, respirators, or anesthesia machines not required for the provision of critical healthcare services shall undertake an inventory of these supplies and send that information to the state by 5 p.m. on Friday, March 27. The Office of Emergency Management shall establish a process for affected entities to submit this information,” the order said.

Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE), one of the largest unions for healthcare workers, sent a letter to the state Department of Health on March 11 urging the department to ensure that doctors and medical staff would get access to proper equipment and training.

“Healthcare workers must feel confident that they have had the training they need and the protective equipment necessary to keep them safe while they continue to provide patient care to those infected with COVID-19,” said Debbie White, the HPAE president, in the letter. “Our unions are standing together to demand, not beg, but demand proper training and protections be readily available to every healthcare worker in every facility. Those concerns must be addressed before this virus spreads even further across the state.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has temporarily waived some of the guidelines on using or reusing masks, but has urged that hospitals return to using N95 masks as soon as the supply chain resumes.

Deutsch said that her own efforts, and those of others in the community, were a drop in the bucket. But, she said, “it’s a bucket that’s empty, and we need every mask.”

It was frustrating, she said, that the Trump administration had not, as of March 24, enacted the Defense Production Act, which would speed up the production and distribution of medical supplies.

“The idea that regular people in the second-wealthiest state in the wealthiest country in the world are having to do this to get doctors their masks, it’s kind of crazy,” Deutsch said.

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