Quietly, since last Wednesday, a group of scientists, engineers, doctors, and entrepreneurs has been batting around a question in a private Facebook group: what happens if things go south fast? Could something be mobilized in Dallas if the worst-case scenario unfolds—a spike in COVID-19 cases forces a run on hospitals, which quickly run out of intensive care beds and masks and ventilators and other protective equipment?
They bandy about strategies, like blueprints for emergency masks made of tightly woven cotton, not unlike the material of a bandana. They go further, exploring making them with the more functional polypropylene, which doesn’t retain moisture like cotton does and is widely used in surgeries. A week in, they have a blueprint. They share things that are more ambitious: did you see the story about the doctor who figured out a way to get a ventilator to accommodate two people? By the way, does anyone have a supply connection for polypropylene?
“Shooting things down is always gonna be easy,” says Hubert Zajicek, the founder of the group, a trained physician, and the head of the Health Wildcatters incubator, based in downtown Dallas. “Do you have approval to make these masks? Well, no, we’re not an FDA-approved outfit. This is really meant to be of assistance when the shit hits the fan.”
They call it the Health Hacking Crisis Network, a group of people “willing to spring into action whatever the problem is.” “We should have enough people in this group that can tackle almost anything through their relationships,” Zajicek says.
First up? Masks. Independent of Zajicek’s effort, East Dallas resident and former City Hall employee Taylor Slovak asked her Facebook followers whether anyone would be interesting in sewing some simple cotton masks. As of today, the post had grown into a group of more than 770 volunteers.
The need is great, she says, especially at smaller places of care: skilled nursing facilities, rehabilitation facilities, hospices, nursing homes. An early respondent was a hospice center in Wichita Falls.
“They have 15 healthcare workers there and they are out of masks completely and reusing the last masks they had in hand,” Slovak says. “At some point, something is better than nothing, right?”
About those cotton masks: they’re a last resort. They’re in line with the CDC’s lighter guidelines for mask use, which allow hand-sewn cotton masks to be used when there is nothing left to cover your face. Professionals would still prefer the polypropylene or, better yet, the N95 mask, so named because it filters out 95 percent of airborne particles. But they could be supplemental, even used over the N95 mask. Patients could wear them upon arrival. Get enough of them and they become one-time users.
“They’re not super efficient, but they’re still in demand for ER patients,” Zajicek says. “Anyone who walks into an ER with a fever, you’d want something around their nose and mouth.”
Heather Stevens, a member of the hacking group, found Slovak and merged their efforts. Until today, there was a possibility that this army of seamstresses and quilters would be stitching polypropylene, which is really a thin polymer that you’d find at the bottom of a box frame mattress. The hacking group had even drawn up blueprints to hand out to the volunteers and started finding suppliers.
What they found: the supply was low. So low that getting into the game could affect availability for major suppliers. They backed off and returned to the cotton. Now Slovak has a Google form that coordinates their efforts. There are now 12 contactless pickup spots, mostly on the porches of volunteers. Anyone can volunteer to donate supplies or make masks. Others can sign up for drop-offs or pickups. (Want to help or need some of this stuff? Hit this email.)
The craft chain Michael’s will donate 10,000 bolts of fabric for the effort, which totals 10 tons spread across about 30 pallets. (Slovak is figuring out where to put it all; possibly in a city of Dallas-owned warehouse, but that isn’t official yet.) Mizzen & Main is also donating fabric. Chico’s and Gap are donating elastic. Soon, Slovak and others will package them in sets with instruction and materials that volunteers will pick up.
And they’ll keep sewing. Even the Girl Scouts of North Texas have joined in.
An open secret is that we just don’t know what the need is. It’s clear the smaller shops are running out of masks quickly, but what about the hospital systems? Slovak says they haven’t gotten much information from them. After all, would you go to a hospital if you knew it was low on protective equipment?
“We had the head of a radiology department who picked up 75 masks off a porch this week for his department,” Slovak says. “To me, it’s super concerning.”
We also know both Dallas County and the state of Texas have triggered campaigns to up the production of protective equipment and ventilators. Signs of a problem are all there. Zajicek’s shit-hits-the-fan strategy means every volunteer has to be ready for whatever is coming. And if it is already here—at least a shortage of masks—those sewing machines need to be humming. “When the choice is no mask or any mask, they’d rather have some homemade mask than none,” he says, echoing what Slovak found at the Wichita Falls hospice.
For Zajicek’s group, the research continues. They’re turning their attention to ventilators. They’re exploring using 3D printers to possibly print plastic shields that could cover the faces of the physicians. Better Block, the Oak Cliff nonprofit, is already planning to print these. The need is dire. “We almost have everything to start prototyping, but hospitals go through 300 a shift,” tweeted managing director Krista Nightengale. “We need thousands.”
But the cloth mask project is off and running. “Several physicians I’ve spoken with personally say there is a need for these masks on the front lines in the ERs, and so they are, and hospitals are, accepting homemade masks,” Zajicek says. “We’re continuing on with that project. We’re working on others. They’re changing as emergency needs emerge.”