Locally made PPE

Jay Chesshir, president and CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, models locally made face shields.

As the projected COVID-19 peak in Arkansas approaches at the beginning of May, companies around Central Arkansas are pitching in to help meet the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers and the wider public in the wake of CDC recommendations that every person wear a mask in public settings.

As of April 21, 249 health care workers in Arkansas have contracted COVID-19, and some of the most effective protection against the new viral disease are also the most difficult to obtain, especially N95 respirator masks and face shields. While shipments of gloves, gowns and regular surgical masks are starting to arrive, N95 masks and face shields remain scarce. As opposed to surgical face masks, N95 and face shields give those wearing them the best protection from aerosol particles in the air — a must for health care workers dealing directly with COVID-19 patients. No one locally is producing N95 masks, but efforts to make face shields and other forms of PPE are underway. 

UA Little Rock is working in partnership with schools, businesses and individuals in Central Arkansas to help address the need by using 3D printers to make face shields for area hospitals. Employees and students from departments of engineering, technology and art collaborated in late March to set up a 3D print farm on campus to create the structural frames for face shields. The design for the face shields was acquired through open source 3D printing communities, and the project can be replicated anywhere, so long as 3D printers are available.

“If your bed of your 3D printer is 200mm by 200mm, chances are you can print this for your hospital or your clinic, and I’m happy to share the file with you,” Lawrence Whitman, dean of the Donaghey College of Engineering and Information Technology, said.

The Little Rock School District, the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub and hobbyists from the area have donated printers to the effort, and local plastics companies Mr. Plastics and ACI Plastics have worked in partnership with the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce to procure scarce plastic sheeting that is part of the face shield.

“I think it’s a really good example of how, when there’s a big need, people come together,” Whitman said. “And the interesting thing is everybody’s ready to jump in and help. Because they know that the medical people are out there putting their lives on the line, and any small thing we can do to make them more safe, we’re very happy to do so.”

Once the prototypes were tested, tweaked and approved by health care professionals, UA Little Rock’s print farm was able to produce 8-10 frames an hour. Lexicon Inc. joined in the effort and was able to devise an aluminum frame that it can manufacture at scale. Both Lexicon Inc. and local food manufacturer Sage V Foods helped foot the bill for the project, and all told the collaboration is looking forward to donating more than 4,000 reusable face shields to local hospitals.

“When it’s all said and done,” said Jay Chesshir, president and CEO of the Little Rock Chamber, “we will be able to provide each hospital a minimum of 500 of these things, free of charge, a value of over $100,000 dollars. In trying to prepare for the surge, this is going to give all of us and most importantly our frontline workers more protection as they work to take care of us.”

Hand sanitizer is also getting a local boost. Rock Town Distillery and is using its equipment and supplies to make hand sanitizer for anyone who wants to come in and fill up a container. Colonial Wine and Spirits is providing hand sanitizer for free. Meanwhile, North Little Rock’s L’Oreal plant is making hand sanitizer in 50-gallon drums for local hospitals.

Other businesses are also stepping up to produce masks at scale, including the local TY Garments plant in Little Rock.

Plant manager Joey Walsh said in an email, “We began producing cloth masks made from 100 percent cotton fabric the beginning of [the week of April 6] and have had a great reception so far. We feel honored that we are able to use our talents to provide cloth masks to Arkansas businesses, health care workers, and neighbors during this crisis.” As of last week, TY Garments had made more than 7,000 masks, and plans to make 100,000 — or, Walsh added, as many as it takes until Arkansas has made it through the worst of the pandemic. Orders can be placed by contacting arclothmask@gmail.com, and at a little over $2 a mask, they are more affordable than many available for sale online.

At an April 16 meeting of Little Rock’s COVID-19 Task Force, city officials raised the possibility of offering free masks to citizens. Mayor Frank Scott Jr. said the city was in talks with TY Garments about purchasing masks for donation, but on April 21, city spokeswoman Stephanie Jackson said the city had not moved forward on the plan.

As closed communities in which any infection is likely to spread to many people very quickly, prisons are particularly in danger of outbreaks. After one inmate in Cummins Unit prison tested positive for COVID-19, further testing revealed that 43 out of 47 men in his barracks had already contracted the virus. By April 21, the number of positive infections among inmates had risen to 680, nearly 40 percent of the Cummins inmate population. Meanwhile, a federal prison in Forrest City is also in the midst of an outbreak; 55 inmates tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 20. While getting PPE for inmates and employees at prisons is a challenge in the midst of shortages, Arkansas Correction Industries, which assigns unpaid inmates to manufacture goods that are sold to the government and sometimes nonprofits, is responding by diverting normal production into making cloth masks. Secretary of Corrections Wendy Kelly announced at a press conference in early April that the prison plans to manufacture 80,000 masks for distribution to employees and inmates across the state.

While shipments of PPE are starting to circulate, and alleviate some of the scarcity, the uncertainty of the future still has everyone on their guard. “We don’t believe that a shipment is there until a truck pulls into a parking lot,” said Melody Daniel, spokesperson for Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, which is coordinating supplies. “The governor has mentioned on multiple occasions that the supply chain is doing just fine, and that’s absolutely true, but we have to understand that there are interruptions in the supply line [even] when we don’t have a global pandemic. ... None of us have done this before. We’re all learning how to do this together.”

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.

The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is an independent, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Our work is re-published by partner newsrooms across the state.