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When the world ran out of PPE, community members and businesses stepped in to save lives

Posted on May. 19, 2020 ( comments)

What do a furniture manufacturer and a plastic fabrication company have in common? They can both make things to keep health care workers safe, and they both care deeply about their communities.

When the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic created a worldwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), it was businesses like these — and so many others across our region — that were there for health care workers.

It was big-box retailers. Small business owners. Construction companies. Dental offices. High schools. And hundreds of community volunteers. Without hesitation, all of them rallied together to support MultiCare’s COVID-19 response efforts.

That quick-thinking and willingness to innovate ensured that MultiCare never ran out of the critical items that were needed to protect employees and patients.

Matt Palcich, Manager of Ambulatory Business Operations for Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital, described it as “the perfect storm” for supply chain.

“We went from a lean model of preparing regional inventories to sustain our system, to facing this global shortage of essential PPE within a matter of days,” he explains. “We knew that if we couldn’t protect our caregivers, we couldn’t run our clinics or care for patients. So, we had to do something fast.”

Palcich joined MultiCare in January to support Mary Bridge Children’s. Given his strong background and expertise in process improvement techniques, however, he was asked by Jason Moulding, MultiCare’s Vice President of Supply Chain, to temporarily assist the supply chain incident response team when the outbreak hit in March.

The response team’s first task, led by Moulding, was to assemble another team of experts who would each have a hand in determining a process to fulfill MultiCare’s system-wide PPE demand. It required creating an intake and triage process for donations, receiving those physical donations, then completing quality assurance testing to make sure that all donated items met Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) standards before making their way to staff.

“It took a village,” Palcich says. “We had lawyers, procurement specialists, manufacturers, infection prevention, nursing education and more. Then outside of our response teams, people from all over just started reaching out to ask what they could donate. And not just that, but what they could manufacture for us here, locally.”

The first offer came from Mary Bridge Children’s very own orthotics team. There was a widespread need at the start of the outbreak for a piece of PPE called a comfort strip, which helps prevent bruising caused by wearing a mask or face shield for prolonged periods of time.

ComfortStrips“We tried to order these items through our normal suppliers, but they were all completely overwhelmed because of the national demand,” Palcich explains. “The orthotics team had the tools to manufacture other types of medical equipment, so they offered to make the comfort strips for us in-house. They also explained the process and once that was shared, MultiCare volunteers started jumping in to help. That was working pretty well, but then we started needing other things, like masks, face shields and gowns.”

That’s when the unexpected offers from dozens of local businesses started to pour in.

Places like Sage Fly Fishing out of Bainbridge Island began producing orders of surgical masks in bulk using CDC-approved materials. Then there was QA Group Furniture Solutions, based in Seattle since 1936, which became a trusted MultiCare supplier for both surgical masks and gowns.

QAGroup2“I started contacting people in the medical community to see what was needed,” QA Group’s Chief Financial Officer, Daniel Jacoy, says.

He reached out to Michele Cannon Bessler, MD, Vice Chair of the Mary Bridge Children’s Foundation Board of Directors. She connected Jacoy to Dori Young, Vice President of MultiCare Foundations, who then looped in Palcich. From there, Palcich provided samples of the items that were most needed, and a prototype for a gown was born later that day.

QA Group employees — the “second responders,” as Jacoy calls them — are now producing 20,000 gowns per day for health care systems across the country.

QAGroup1“This was a team effort,” Jacoy says. “My hope is that the workers who receive them can don these masks and the gowns without a thought. That they won’t have to worry quite as much, so they can focus more on their core mission.”

When it came to face shields, Visual Options had MultiCare covered. The Tacoma-based fabrication company normally specializes in retail designs for signage and other displays. For the past month, they switched to producing thousands of face shields for medical staff.

It’s a complex process that boiled down to a few key steps:

  1. Reverse-engineer the design.
  1. Laser cut all the components.

  1. Put the pieces together.

“It makes you feel relevant when you can put your people and equipment to use to fulfill an immediate need,” Bret Bowen, Owner of Visual Options, says. Altogether, they produced about 1,300 face shield masks just for MultiCare and nearly 33,000 total for health care systems throughout the state.

IMG_1243But even with all of the extra help, the PPE demand continued to climb.

“We were able to produce about 4,000 masks per day between all of the manufacturing support,” Palcich says. “More volunteers stepped in and we gave them sewing kits with the approved materials to create more, which brought us up to about 10,000 masks per week. The problem was that our employees go through about 13,000 masks per day, and that’s just in the Puget Sound. We started to realize that we couldn’t scale the local production to meet our needs.”

To address this, MultiCare asked community members to donate unopened boxes of pre-made PPE. The community, once again, answered in full force.

In just one day, our hospital loading docks received more than 5,000 masks and 186 boxes of gloves. Similar volumes continued for weeks, including one large donation from a local Chinese American community group in Tacoma, and another from students and staff at Bonney Lake High School.

When boxed donations were received, the items were sorted, assessed and fit-tested for effectiveness by nursing education team members. Those that passed came to Palcich and the supply chain team, who continuously monitored the system’s inventory needs and distributed items accordingly between MultiCare’s Puget Sound and Inland Northwest facilities – sometimes sending daily shipments between the two regions.

The community support became so strong and consistent that eventually, loading docks were receiving donations faster than they could distribute them. This presented a whole new challenge: finding a secure place to store the surplus donations. Yet again, another local hero came to the rescue.

“Olympic Moving and Storage gave us space in their facilities and they came to pick up our excess equipment every day until we were ready to take it back,” Palcich says. “They never took a day off.”

It was a truly remarkable and unprecedented feat; one that made MultiCare more connected to its mission of “Partnering for healing and a health future” than ever before.

Bree Smith, RN, is an assistant nurse manager in the emergency department at MultiCare Covington Medical Center.

CovHomeDepotDonation“To say how blessed we are to receive donations of PPE is an understatement,” Smith says. “Our team was unsure how much PPE we had. When we received the boxes of respirators and masks, I was beyond grateful. The Covington Home Depot took care of us so that we could take of our community safely.”

For Palcich, when he looks back on his first 90 days at MultiCare, he says he’ll remember the few grey hairs he earned. But most of all, he’ll remember watching our communities come together to support one another. 

“This is a story about people,” Palcich says. “Whether it was a delivery of donated items, locally manufactured items or hand-sewn items, these people made it all happen. They’ve dedicated every minute of every day to helping us solve this crisis since it started. We couldn’t have done it without all of them.”

In all, MultiCare has received more than 48,000 handmade comfort strips, 27,000 hand-sewn masks, 45,000 locally manufactured surgical masks, 8,000 face shields and 3,000 surgical gowns.

PPE donations are still being accepted at designated MultiCare drop-off locations. Find a location near you, or make a gift to the MultiCare COVID-19 Response Fund today.

About The Author

McKenna Ownby

McKenna Ownby writes stories that connect readers to the impact of philanthropy.

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