Amid nationwide shortages of protective gear for nurses and doctors on the front line of the coronavirus, a homegrown effort in La Plata County has stepped up to bring supplies to health care workers.
In the past week or so, more than 200 people associated with Durango’s MakerLab and other individuals have mobilized to make masks, gowns and other equipment for local hospitals.
“It’s just an amazing community effort that says so much about Durango,” said Ryan Finnigan, a co-founder of the MakerLab. “We have the chance, with enough funding, to make a huge difference in helping get our health care providers geared up with everything they need.”
Personal protective equipment, or PPE, is in high demand as supply chains can no longer keep up delivering resources amid the growing coronavirus outbreak.
Jarrad Maiers, an emergency physician at San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington, said supplies were running low. Searching for a way to put PPEs in the hands of his staff, he reached out to the MakerLab.
“I said, ‘I need help. I need equipment,’” Maiers said. “And then they immediately went into full-gear mode.”
The mechanical tinkers at the MakerLab researched how to build necessary equipment, like masks and gowns. They consulted medical workers and, in a short time, started drawing prototypes, working around the clock.
Scavenging materials, members at the MakerLab started ramping up production. Now, it’s a full-scale operation, with people sewing from home, others working delivery routes and a core group drawing more prototypes.
Most of the work, Finnigan said, is funded straight out of personal accounts.
“We went from a maker space with a handful of members,” he said, “to a 160-person organization, rapidly prototyping and manufacturing medical supplies in about seven days.”
Materials are not Food and Drug Administration approved, yet they were tested extensively and given the green light from the biohazard and hazmat coordinator for the Farmington Fire Department, Maiers said.
The most recent accomplishment was MakerLab’s powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) unit, which consists of a hood attached to a tube with an air filter to protect health care workers.
“After I asked for a PAPR, (Finnigan) and his team reverse engineered it in about 72 hours,” Maiers said. “That’s a herculean effort.”
Maiers said San Juan Regional has set aside two floors of the hospital for coronavirus patients, and every day, more people are filtering in. In the next few weeks, however, he expects the first major surge.
“We are very much expecting the wave to crash in the next few weeks,” he said. “And the moment it hits us, it’s going to hit Durango as well.”
A nurse at Mercy Regional Medical Center, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the hospital, at the direction of Centura Health, initially did not allow its workers to use PPEs made and donated within the community, even though the hospital had shortages.
“We were being asked to share gowns and conserve masks because there wasn’t enough,” the nurse said.
But recently, Mercy changed course.
“I think we were all like, ‘Thank God,’” the nurse said. “Mercy has really come around ... and started to really work with the community. And that’s been so heartening for us as staff.”
Mercy interim CEO Mike Murphy said he couldn’t comment about that situation, as he just moved into his new position and was unfamiliar with the details.
But Murphy said the hospital is now actively using face shields and working on acquiring other equipment like gowns.
“Kudos to the community on figuring out a way to help,” he said.
Mercy, like nearly every hospital in the country, faces shortages in supplies. But as of now, Murphy said the hospital is in a good position to handle a surge of coronavrius cases, especially with the support of Centura.
But as the surge happens, and more supplies are diverted to larger cities like New York, homegrown efforts like the MakerLab will come in handy.
Other efforts to make PPEs are afoot as well. Venture Snowboards in Silverton recently started making face shields. And a call went out to local quilters to help sew gowns.
Terry Spriggs, a co-founder of the MakerLab, said members hope to start providing equipment to other health facilities around Durango, as well as in Shiprock and Cortez.
“There’s this challenge that really matters, and for us to ignore it would not be normal,” he said.
Finnigan said the effort will require additional funding. A GoFundMe page has been started to help with costs.
“Everything we do now will hopefully get the right equipment in place for everyone in the Four Corners on the real front line when this hits in the next week,” he said. “That’s why were working so tirelessly.”
A previous version of this story had the incorrect spelling of Ryan Finnigan’s name.