Ordinary residents across Osceola County are mobilizing wartime-like grassroots efforts to create and supply healthcare workers and other essential employees with much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE) during the height of COVID-19.
Colby Kowalski, of St. Cloud, went from making toys for his son with his 3D printer to creating PPE. Since April 2, he’s donated more than 100 facemask bands to St. Cloud Medical Center, 100 to nurses at AdventHealth and about 80 to local Chick-fil-A and Walmart employees.
“My printers haven’t really stopped,” Kowalski said.
These relief bands help keep facemask straps off the wearer’s ears, he explained. They provide some much-appreciated relief for those on the front lines.
“The more comfortable something is, the more likely someone is to use them,” said Kowalski, who plans to begin manufacturing face shields next week. “Being able to use my printers for something people really need has been great.”
Current projections anticipate Florida coronavirus cases will peak April 21 and volunteers want to make sure people stay safe.
Jason Mencer, of Davenport, began manufacturing face masks in early April with a small 3D printer he purchased in January.
“It’s easier to get started than most people realize,” said Mencer, who uses designs and instructions he found on MaketheMask.com to create his gear.
He’s made about 60 masks so far, but at roughly three hours a mask, Mencer admits it’s a slow process.
So, he purchased three more 3D printers last week.
“I come home from work then get to work on making masks,” said Mencer, who works customer service at the Orlando Health Amtrak station. “I want to help people.”
Staff at Kissimmee’s Hart Memorial Library is also stepping up by utilizing on-site sewing machines and 3D printers.
With donated supplies from Joann Fabric and Craft Stores’ Make to Give program, library staff created nearly 100 masks in a few days. Representatives from the program then distribute the items as part of a kit to local hospitals and medical facilities.
Connecting makers and suppliers
Candy Cole with The Maker Effect Foundation in Orlando works to ensure volunteers like Kowalski and Mencer have the materials and support they need.
Two weeks ago, she and her husband, Ian, launched a Facebook group called Open Source COVID-19 Medical Supplies of Central and South Florida. It connects makers and suppliers to help bolster the local supply chain.
For example, if someone runs low on 3D printer filament, they can jump on the page to see what’s available. Others share updates about approved PPE designs or reach out for help with big orders.
“We try to connect people with resources and amplify their reach,” Cole said.
Earlier this month, Cole partnered with Orlando Health hospitals to create a list of what is needed and where donations can be dropped off.
“We want to make sure what people make is actually what hospitals need and will use,” she said.
Osceola officials say they’re good on PPE
Despite recent grassroot efforts, Osceola County officials said they don’t need homemade PPE right now.
On Friday, Osceola Emergency Management Director Bill Litton said his department has allocated over 31,930 ear lobe masks to 75 county agencies since the pandemic began. Over 4,200 units of N95 masks have also been sourced to first responder units, nursing homes, hospitals and health care facilities — as well as 2,754 face shields.
Litton said Osceola can handle the recent surge — but noted partnerships have been formed with nearby counties and community groups in case things change.
“We have the inventory in place and plans for alternate care sites,” he said.
New face covering order begins in Osceola
On Monday, Osceola County became the first Central Florida government to require residents to wear a face covering in public. Violators can face a $500 fine or up to 60 days in jail, officials said.
The decision follows new April 3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that recommend people wear cloth face coverings in public when social distancing is difficult to maintain.
But local leaders emphasize that face coverings — often made from household objects like bandanas, socks or scarves — are not the same as facemasks. This helps maintain critical PPE for front line workers, officials said.
“The concern was preventing the spread from asymptomatic individuals,” Osceola County Commissioner Viviana Janer said Friday. “There has been some evidence of that in the community.”
Guidelines for using and creating cloth face coverings can be found on the CDC website.
Other counties and cities — mostly in South Florida — enacted similar mandatory measures last week.
If you need PPE or want to donate it
If you’re an Osceola business with a bulk supply of purchased PPE items, such as N95 masks, you can call the Osceola County Citizen’s Information Center at 407-742-0000 Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. A county representative can take your information and determine where to send your purchased PPE.
If you’re interested in using your talents to create PPE, visit the Open Source COVID-19 Medical Supplies – Central and South Florida page on Facebook or GetUsPPE.org.