195,000 refurbished face masks coming to SC hospitals amid nationwide shortage
The national retailer Sleep Number is using its Midlands plant to refurbish about 195,000 N95 face masks found by two South Carolina hospitals this week.
The stockpiles of masks came from Prisma Health Richland Hospital in Columbia and the MUSC Health Florence Medical Center. The masks had been held in storage for emergencies but the bands attached to the masks had decayed and were in need of replacement, said Jordan Kruger, a Sleep Number spokesperson.
Sleep Number is obtaining elastic bands manufactured by Phenix Engineered Textiles in Landrum to completely restore the thousands of masks to protect medical workers during a national shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE.
The manufacturing partnership with the South Carolina Hospital Association began last week when about 16,000 face masks were discovered in Prisma Health Tuomey Hospital in Sumter.
Sleep Number expects the new stockpile of masks to be delivered back to the respective hospitals in about three weeks.
The Irmo plant began the effort with three machines but now has 13 machines working on mask repairs full time, Kruger said.
An Upstate textile company and a mattress company with a plant in the Midlands are helping repair thousands of respirator masks discovered in storage inside a Sumter hospital to aid response efforts amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Other hospitals across the state are now scouring inventories in hopes of finding more stockpiles to have additional masks go through the same refurbishing process.
Phenix Engineered Textiles CEO Rod Grandy told The Greenville News that a member of the South Carolina Hospital Association contacted his Landrum business last week, explaining the situation and requesting assistance.
Grandy said he was told hospital staff at Prisma Health Tuomey Hospital found an emergency stockpile of more than 16,000 N95 surgical face masks that were in disrepair. The bands used to hold the masks on faces had essentially decayed and could no longer support the masks, he said.
As a result, the hospital reached out to Phenix, which specializes in elastic bands specifically for the face mask industry, and Sleep Number, a mattress manufacturer.
"The masks are perfectly good, but the rubber looked like it had rotted and wouldn’t hold that mask on," Grandy said.
The elastic was sent to a Sleep Number manufacturing plant in Irmo, which agreed to refurbish the products by sewing the new elastic bands onto the masks.
Sleep Number received confirmation that their newly designed product was certified and met all quality standards as of Friday, said Hunter Mottel, Sleep Number's director of manufacturing operations and director of the Irmo plant.
"Sleep Number as a company, we are very focused on improving lives. That's our mission and what we do every day," Mottel told The Greenville News. "We typically do that through bed making, but honestly, with everything going on, we thought 'How can we think outside the box and see opportunities to help."
Mottel said Sleep Number, a national retailer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, used its sewing talent, skillset and equipment to play a part in getting new masks to the front lines.
"I would challenge anybody out there. Every industry can help, especially manufacturing. In manufacturing, you got to think outside the box," Mottel said. "In times of crisis, it’s a near obligation to find ways to help in some fashion."
Work is now underway to repair the masks and deliver them back to the hospital system for emergency use. Mottel said he expects to have the new masks delivered back to Tuomey Hospital in about a week.
N95 respirator masks are in high demand amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as the recommended safety supply to thwart the transmission of the virus. The "N95" designation means that the mask materials manage to block about 95 percent of particles during testing, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
The N95 masks are recommended by medical experts for use during the COVID-19 outbreak because they fit tightly around the face and are able to provide more protection than the loose-fitting surgical masks.
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a set of strategies for optimizing the supply of N95 respirators.
Phenix donated about 25,000 yards of elastics to help see the relief effort through for the batch of masks found in Sumter. Grandy said he sent the material to a Sleep Number office in the Columbia area on Monday to complete the sewing portion of the project then to be tested for quality and approved.
The respirator effort follows a growing trend of healthcare systems partnering with federal authorities and private industries working toward meeting an urgent need during the pandemic.
"It’s nice to play a part in this. We’re getting calls left and right from people for both face mask material and face shield material," Grandy said. "People really all over the country are trying to figure out ways to do this on an ad hoc basis."
State Hospital Association spokesman Schipp Ames said like Tuomey Hospital in Sumter, other hospitals may also have stockpiles of unused masks in disrepair. He said he is considering the repairs with Tuomey's masks to be a pilot effort to larger-scale relief if and when more outdated masks are located.
"We are continuing to work with partners like Phenix and Sleep Number to try and re-purpose PPE (Personal protective equipment) for hospital workers," Ames said. "We expect this is the beginning of our efforts to re-purpose these."
Daniel J. Gross is an investigative watchdog reporter focusing on public safety and law enforcement for The Greenville News. Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @danieljgross.