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Stepping Up: The San Luis Valley Responds to the Pandemic

By Chelsea McNerney-Martinez

The lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for rural hospitals has been an anticipated challenge since the scope of the COVID-19 crisis became a hard-hitting reality. However, volunteers and local business owners proved they were up for the challenge, stepping up to protect San Luis Valley healthcare workers and patients, donating hundreds of hours of manpower and the creative use of equipment and supplies to produce masks and gowns for SLV Health and Rio Grande Hospital, as well as local nursing homes and other essential workers.

In late March, SLV Health in Alamosa formed an Innovation Team to coordinate volunteers and ideas for addressing the many changes in healthcare needs the COVID-19 crisis will pose. The innovation team released a pattern and a request for masks for healthcare providers which could be reusable and fitted with filters. The call was almost immediately answered by local volunteers.

Lynn Weathers, owner of Alamosa Quilting Company, assembled kits and patterns for local quilters, reaching out to her customer network to sew masks. After hundreds of those had been provided, Weathers created a pattern for disposable gowns to be made out of waterproof materials.

Micah Jackson, owner of Rustic Living, discussed how her team decided to get involved with the project. “One of my regional church leaders (Margaret Shawcroft of La Jara, the Alamosa Stake Relief Society President) sent out a group text requesting volunteers to sew masks for SLV Health.  I talked to my husband about how we could really help out by using our laser, typically used for cutting upholstery pieces for our furniture, to speed up the mask process … Randy and I worked closely with representatives from SLV Health on the precise mask design their providers approved. Once the laser was programmed, we started cutting kits and it ballooned from there. My family, a few employees and a few volunteers assembled the kits, then distributed them to volunteers to sew.  The majority of sewing volunteers were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Relief Society from both the Alamosa and Manassa areas, but as the project grew, community members from all of the San Luis Valley and even Salida and Buena Vista sewed thousands of masks.”

“In total we have cut and distributed 4,830 mask kits. 2,500 were for SLV Health, 610 for Rio Grande Hospital and the rest were for nursing homes, grocery workers, postal workers, home health workers, social service workers and individuals through the SLV and Salida. It was the efforts of local businesses and many, many individuals who made this such as success.  Not one of us could have done it alone. It was definitely a community team effort!”

Kristi Mountain Sports, a bicycling and outdoor retailer, saw the call on Facebook and reached out to SLV Health to see how they could help. The staff at Kristi Mountain disassembled over 100 furnace/AC air filters, supplied by the SLV Health Foundation and Innovation Team, to make about 7,000 disposable filter patches. Once provided with masks cut by Rustic Living, they installed over 1,200 filters into masks. Raleigh Burt, Business Development Manager at Kristi Mountain, said the staff members and owners put in over 100 hours of labor. “We also received a very generous cash donation from a local farmer who wanted to support the mask effort—we are using the contribution to cover the cost of additional materials and have also shared the cash with other businesses who contributed time and materials to the project.

When asked how Kristi Mountain Sports decided the take on the project, Burt stated, “We’ve been in business in Alamosa for 50 years—we do our best to support the SLV community because it’s the only way a business like ours stays open … Offering to help was the right thing to do … Due to the major slowdown in business traffic we needed projects for our staff members … When the closure orders are lifted, I hope people pick their five favorite businesses/restaurants and immediately go support them.”

Rio Grande Hospital (RGH) in Del Norte has taken a massive financial hit due to the COVID-19 crisis as they temporarily closed all but one of their outpatient clinics and suspended many of their services, including physical therapy, wound care, non-essential surgeries and others, to accommodate social distancing for the safety of their staff, patients and community. Additionally, RGH purchased a tele-health system to better accommodate their patients’ visits with primary care providers, overall leading to a significant financial impact to the small community hospital. However, the Del Norte and San Luis Valley communities came together to provide what support and PPE they could to keep the hospital staff going.

According to Eva Timberlake, RGH’s Development and Communications Officer, “We have received over 1,000 masks and about $5,000 in cash for COVID-19 items needed,” with the donations and offers continuing to come in. In addition to Rustic Living, mask donors included 250 masks from Bontrager’s Variety Store, whose owners are members of the SLV’s Amish community and numerous individuals. The Colorado Grille and Taphouse donated material and several other businesses have donated materials or financially including, “The El Pomar Foundation, Del Norte Bank, local churches, quilting clubs, Creede School District, Creede Repertory Theatre, Trinidad State Junior College’s Nursing Program Class of 2020, Del Norte Ministerial Alliance, San Luis Valley Behavioral Health Group and many more. Others have shown their love by purchasing food and decorating the outside the hospital to show how appreciated local healthcare workers are. The Girl Scouts of the SLV brought in 200 boxes of Girl Scout cookies for our staff. Many individuals and other organizations have also stepped up to help … It’s been amazing to see how this community has come together. There are so many people that are helping.”

Timberlake noted RGH has always tried to meet the community’s healthcare needs by providing relevant services and RGH hopes the community shows their support back to the local businesses and volunteers who made these great displays of community unity in a difficult time. Timberlake also noted the Colorado Hospital Association, in partnership with the Governor’s PPE Taskforce, Project Cure, and Make4COVID have been working to ensure rural hospitals have access to PPE, including alternative PPE when traditional supply chain sources are not working. These efforts are in collaboration with the State Emergency Operations Center, which uses EMResources to monitor PPE status for all Colorado hospitals. 

The biggest contributors to the mask and gown initiatives are the individual SLV residents who displayed an admirable spirit of resilience by going to work for their community, sewing in the face of a uniquely dire and ever-evolving situation. The thousands of combined hours they have contributed to preparing PPE for the most vital and the most vulnerable people in our area may not have an exact monetary value, but they helped save countless lives and stitched a brighter future for Colorado.