Volunteer pilots are flying masks, hand sanitizer and other critical supplies to rural hospitals across the state facing  shortages driven by the coronavirus.

“It’s like Christmas every time they come,” said Kimberly Montejano, infection preventionist at Arkansas Valley Regional Medical Center in La Junta. The 25-bed critical access hospital has received free hand sanitizer, face shields, disinfectant and other supplies through the flights organized by the Colorado Hospital Association, she said.

The hospital was hit hard by shortages of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies because, like other rural hospitals, their routine shipments are based on the relatively small amount of supplies they have ordered in recent months and then suppliers reduced those shipments, Montejano said.

“Our supply chain dried up very quickly,” Montejano said.

A staple of hospital life, hand sanitizer used dozens of times a day by employees, ran so low the hospital pharmacy started making it from alcohol purchased at the liquor store, she said. The city of La Junta also made hundreds of gallons of water mixed with bleach for the hospital to use as disinfectant, Montejano said.

While struggling with shortages, the La Junta hospital was burning through more protective equipment and supplies while treating those suspected of having COVID-19, she said. In an average year, hospital staff would treat one person with an illness requiring the same precautions as someone with the coronavirus. Since mid-March, the hospital has treated 30 people suspected of having the illness, she said.

In the next 12 to 24 months rural hospitals are likely to continue to face shortages of personal protective equipment until a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed or a large portion of the population develops immunity. The demand for supplies is expected to stay high and even rise as more businesses reopen, with rural hospitals being at the end of the supply chain, said Benjamin Anderson, Colorado Hospital Association vice president of rural health and hospitals.

“They are most at risk of running out of PPE altogether,” he said.

The association is not typically involved in medical supplies distribution, but it started putting together a supply chain after hearing about two Denver-based companies, Knotty Tie, a custom tie company, and Whimsical Whiskers, a stuffed-animal company, that were changing their business models to make cloth masks and were interested in selling them to health care facilities, he said.

“I don’t think CHA planned to be in the PPE distribution business more than 90 days ago,” Anderson said.

The association has since received grant funding to purchase equipment, including the cloth masks from the Denver companies, and has worked with other private companies and nonprofits to supply hospitals. The flights are donated by pilots volunteering with Civil Air Patrol, Angel Flight West and Angel Flight Central, nonprofits that normally provide transportation to those with serious medical conditions.

“What we have done is hack the supply chain,” Anderson said.

The association now regularly organizes flights to about 25 of the 43 rural Colorado hospitals, including the planned delivery of 9,000 cloth masks to Alamosa, Pagosa and Del Norte for hospital workers who are not working directly with patients in a clinical setting, he said. Flying equipment out to the hospitals works well because they typically don’t need large deliveries.

El Paso County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf is among the pilots delivering supplies from Centennial to rural hospitals and has flown 11,000 masks to Alamosa and 100 pounds of disinfectant to La Junta for Angel Flight West in his Piper Lance. On Friday, he plans to deliver 478 pounds of emergency medical supplies to Grand Junction.

“The nation really wasn’t ready to distribute really large volumes of PPE,” he said.

His delivery to the hospital in Alamosa allowed hospital employees to stay focused on their work instead of picking up the supplies, and he received a profuse thank you when he arrived, he said.

"It’s really a thank you for the entire team," he said. 

To help supply rural hospitals into the coming months, Project C.U.R.E. and the Colorado Hospital Association are helping to organize the Heart4Heroes initiative to raise funds to keep the deliveries going. Every time an educational YouTube video about the shortage of personal protective equipment is shared with on social media and tagged #heart4heroes a dollar will be donated to purchase supplies for rural hospitals. 

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 429-9264.

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