South Carolina has seen more than 3,000 positive cases of COVID-19, and so far, the number of people who have died from the infection remains in the low triple digits. Last week, the state's governor, Henry McMaster, joined a growing list of those who have issued "stay at home" orders. As cases multiply, groups like the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance (SCMA) and the South Carolina Hospital Association (SCHA), have grown concerned about PPE shortages that have plagued other states. They're wringing what they can from normal distribution channels but are also coming up with new ways to make sure the needs of their health care workers are met.
"It continues to be a challenge for a lot of facilities," said SCHA Communications Vice President Schipp Ames. "We have worked through every channel at our disposal. We are talking to traditional suppliers, logistic companies, manufacturers, [and] we have local businesses we're partnering with."
One SCHA-SCMA-coordinated effort has come together just miles outside of South Carolina's capital, in the small town of Irmo. With just over 12,000 residents, Irmo is located in Richland and Lexington Counties, which currently have the highest and fourth highest number of COVID-19 cases of any county in the state, respectively. When the SCMA reached out to its members in search of PPE, a Sleep Number factory in Irmo answered the call. The bed manufacturer didn't have surgical masks or elastic bands, but it did offer to supply sewing machinery and labor if materials were made available.
"Typically, improving lives for us is improving people's sleep," said Hunter Mottel, Sleep Number director of manufacturing at the Irmo facility. "We saw this and I saw the pandemic going on, and said you know this is—talking about improving lives—this is a different way now for improving the health and safety of our frontline health care workers."
Sleep Number joined forces with Phenix Engineered Textiles, which provided elastic bands, and SCHA member Prisma Health, which provided tens of thousands of surgical masks that had previously been held in long-term storage.
Sleep Number has roughly 40 people who are working around the clock to reinforce approximately 7,000 masks per day using 13 machines. The company hopes to refurbish 190,000 N-95 surgical masks by the end of the month. And earlier this week, the group shipped 40,000 completed masks to different hospitals in the state. Prisma Health has pledged to donate 10% of its masks to the SCHA Midlands coalition.
"What we wanted to do was ensure with any type of pandemic stocks, that we have the opportunity to provide our team members the safest PPE so they're always 100% protected, so they can care for these COVID patients," said Christopher Powell, Prisma Health Director of Engineering. "When the coalition...[was] offering to do this for us at a very, very economical price, we wanted to take advantage of ensuring the safety of the PPE."
Prisma Health told CBS News that the collaboration to reinforce surgical masks will help its 30,000 team members as they treat their patients. Mottel acknowledged the uncommon nature of the partnership, which arose from the unprecedented circumstances of this pandemic. He's hoping to inspire others to pitch in, too, however they can.
"There's more people out in the communities in South Carolina and beyond that, I think if you think outside the box, if you just raise your hand and say I'm here to help, you might be surprised at what opportunities come your way and how you actually can help even if it doesn't make a lot of sense in the moment," concluded Mottel. "The willingness to help goes a long way."