Coronavirus: US prison inmates to make hospital gowns and masks amid critical shortage

‘Individuals involved tell us they're very excited to do this sort of work’

Andrew Buncombe
Monday 23 March 2020 18:32 GMT
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Prison inmates in Washington state and Texas are being tasked with making hospital gowns and protective face masks amid a national shortage triggered by the coronavirus crisis.

As hospital administrators from Florida to Iowa warn of a “desperate” shortage of basic equipment and people organise volunteers to sew masks at home, officials in Texas and Washington are turning to a pool of labour that is already used to producing textiles.

The Washington Department of Corrections said over the weekend it had developed an approved prototype of gown and production would start imminently.

Once fully operational, 160 inmates and a dozen staff located at facilities across the state will make 5,000-6,000 gowns per day. The department is liaising with officials at the state emergency operations centre for the distribution of the gowns.

“The individuals involved tell us they are very excited to do this sort of work,” Janelle Guthrie, a spokesperson for the department, told The Independent.

“It’s a way to give back to the community.”

CNN reported that in Texas, inmates at the Gatesville Correctional Facility, a women’s prison located 120 miles south of Dallas, are to produce cotton masks for emergency responders.

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State senator John Whitmire said the masks would be made of local cotton, rather than synthetic material, so were unlikely to be of the highest standard.

“They’re not the one you would want in an emergency room, but it sure beats nothing,” said Mr Whitmire.

The moves in Washington and Texas underscore the national shortage of many basic medical items, as hospitals prepare for an expected deluge of cases of infected people in coming weeks

In a letter sent to Donald Trump, the American Hospital Association, which represents 5,000 facilities nationwide, urged the president to order the immediate production of such items.

“We have concerns that increasingly there are dwindling supplies of N95 respirators, isolation gowns, isolation masks, surgical masks, eye protection, intensive care unit equipment and diagnostic testing supplies in areas that had the first community outbreaks and in many other areas of the country,” it said.

“Even with an infusion of supplies from the strategic stockpile and other federal resources, there will not be enough medical supplies, including ventilators, to respond to the projected Covid­-19 outbreak. We have heard of health care providers reusing masks or resorting to makeshift alternatives for masks.”

Across the country, people have been organising volunteers to sew masks. In Washington state, the Providence St Joseph Health Foundation in Renton, started the so-called 100m mask challenge, in which people volunteered to make the masks.

Helped by donations and offers from local industries to manufacture them, the home-sewing drive has now been suspended.

In a message posted on its website, the foundation wrote: “We are truly grateful for your willingness to help and will share information soon regarding other ways you can help.”

In Washington state, inmates taking part in the work scheme that is part of a broader educational educational programme, will make between $0.65-$1.70 an hour.

“I’m proud our team can contribute to the Covid-19 response in such a meaningful way,” said corrections secretary Stephen Sinclair. “When we learned of the national shortage of protective gowns, we sprang into action.”

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