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Iowa businesses donate much-needed PPE

Iowa businesses donate much-needed PPE

From the Coronavirus update Northeast Iowa series
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WATERLOO — Construction crews across the state are donating the N95 masks they normally wear on job sites. Veterinarians are donating machines that can be retrofitted into ventilators. And some manufacturers are realigning their entire factories to transition to making plexiglass face shields and other personal protective equipment desperately needed by health care workers.

Welcome to Iowa Nice in the age of the coronavirus.

“I’m biased, of course, but I’ll call it a typical Iowa response,” said Mike Ralston, the president of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry. “Everybody wants to help if they can.”

Ralston’s organization represents around 1,500 businesses in all of Iowa’s 99 counties, most of them manufacturers. Since the virus began to spread he’s put out the call, asking members to donate surplus supplies or even consider retooling how they do business to manufacture equipment that’s short nationwide.

There’s story after story of how manufacturers are helping:

  • Metalcraft in Mason City, which makes bar code labels and other identification tags for businesses, is now also 3-D printing plexiglass face shields. Stellar Industries in Garner, a commercial and industrial equipment supplier, is assisting Metalcraft in the effort by 3-D printing “halos,” part of those face shields.
  • Dickson Industries in Des Moines, a food supply manufacturer, had moved to mass-producing gowns. The company estimates it will have made 35,000 gowns by the end of April.
  • Fox River Mills in Osage, which makes socks, is transitioning to making masks.
  • QC Plastics in Independence has made around 11,000 face shields and plans to donate them to the Buchanan County relief response.
  • The Jerald Sulky Co. in Waterloo, which manufactures horse-drawn vehicles, has been transformed into a temporary assembly operation where volunteers put together disposable face shields specifically for UnityPoint hospital and clinic staff.
  • Others from Hawkeye Community College to the University of Northern Iowa to the Waterloo Public Library are using 3-D printing capabilities to make face shields.

Dozens more manufacturers have expressed interest in transitioning their production lines, according to Iowa State University’s Center for Industrial Research and Service, which has compiled a list of manufacturers willing and able to produce PPE at “medium to high volume” should the need arise.

Waterloo carriage company, volunteers assemble face shields

“I haven’t talked to anybody that can’t do it,” Ralston said. “There might be plants that don’t have the capability, but, boy, everybody I’ve talked to wants to help.”

That’s good news to Brent Willett, CEO of the Iowa Health Care Association, which represents the state’s long-term care facilities and home health agencies — places where the national shortage of PPE are acutely felt.

“Given the projected duration of COVID-19, our donation efforts are extremely important to help providers throughout the duration of this crisis,” Willett wrote.

Other statewide trade groups are helping as well.

Ben Hammes, director of public affairs for Master Builders of Iowa, said although OSHA requirements mean construction crews still on the job can’t give all of their N95 masks away, he’s hearing from many of his group’s 400 members that they’re able to donate excess gloves, masks and eyewear.

“We’re all affected by this,” Hammes said. “We want to be as helpful as we can to the folks working in health care, taking care of people getting sick.”

Even the state’s veterinarians, who are by and large still working to keep pets and livestock healthy, are able to donate excess PPE since elective procedures are being put off, said Randy Wheeler with the Iowa Veterinary Medical Association.

Ventilators from some practices — or machines that can be retrofitted to become ventilators — are being donated locally by veterinarians to hospitals.

“I keep emphasizing we’re all in this together, and it’s a one-health thing,” Wheeler said.

None of the trade groups were keeping track of how many donations were coming in, nor where they were going, as each county emergency management agency or individual hospitals seemed to be taking receipt directly.

But as cases multiply in Black Hawk County, the need for PPE is still not being met at long-term care facilities or hospitals.

Care Initiatives, which owns four long-term care facilities and a hospice, is doing OK with its supply, but “we could always use a little more,” said Jason Bridie, the director of marketing.

For others, the need is more acute.

“We’re diligently trying to search for more PPE — there’s just not enough,” said Sherry Turner, an administrator at Friendship Village in Waterloo.

Black Hawk Sheriff Tony Thompson, who is coordinating the county’s response to the coronavirus, said Thursday the county continues to get less PPE from the state than hospitals, facilities and first responders need.

And Sharon Duclos, co-director at People’s Clinic in Waterloo, is putting out the call for cloth masks and cloth gowns as her staff had begun reusing them to preserve their extremely limited supply.

“We would be out today” if staff were using the gowns as they’re meant to be used, Duclos said, noting they’ve been exploring alternatives, such as raincoats or ponchos. “We just have to work with what is available and get as creative as we can to protect ourselves.”

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