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As health care workers responding to the novel coronavirus around the world lack medical masks, gowns and gloves, some Montana providers are rallying a makeshift supply of their own.

Thousands of new cases of the virus called COVID-19 are recorded across the U.S. each day. Many health systems have been overwhelmed and cut off from some of their largest suppliers overseas while the industry struggles to keep up. Providers have shared stories of using a wet handkerchief to cover their faces or going without a mask at all.

This month, the World Health Organization warned the shortage puts lives at risk from the new virus and other diseases, especially for front-line workers. The organization called on industry and governments to fill the need.

So far, the shortage continues.

Montana’s 65 known cases of the new virus remain relatively low compared to other states. But as that number increases each day, providers are gearing for a potential surge in patients — and they’re getting creative.

A Billings Clinic neurosurgeon worked with a dental company to create reusable plastic masks using 3D printers and put the model online “to activate every 3D printer in our community to produce these masks.” The hospital has received calls from around the nation and as far as Scotland from providers following suit.

The Montana Hospital Association has partnered with industry groups that include contractors and retailers that are collecting donated masks for hospitals.

Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital is working with Simms Fishing Products — the Bozeman company known for making waders — to create 2,000 Gore-Tex medical gowns. The health system also has a growing army of volunteers that include quilters, churches, businesses and individuals at home to make reusable fabric masks.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines tell health care workers to only use homemade masks “as a last resort” because it’s uncertain how well they work compared to well-vetted medical gear. That’s guidance that Erin Loranger, a spokesperson with the Montana governor’s office, repeated this week.

Rebecca Williamson, medical floor nurse manager with Bozeman Health, said providers are following CDC’s advice and those homemade masks are what ensures “we’re not in a last resort.”

“Montana has had significant lead time to prepare for this,” Williamson said. “We are sitting in a really good position right now in having that ability to see how things are trending, what we need to prepare for and what alternatives we can come up with ... We’ve studied to the highest ability in an area that has not been previously necessary.”

Montana officials say at this point the state’s supply is OK.

Last weekend, Montana received its first supply of protective equipment out of the federal stockpile.

That delivered 9,518 special N95 respirator masks. The high-demand product is named for the 95% of airborne particles the masks filter out if used right.

That shipment also included 22,674 surgical masks, 6,267 pairs of gloves and 3,520 gowns.

Delila Bruno, the Montana Department of Emergency Services administrator, said those supplies began making their way to Montana providers Monday with another federal supply due to arrive this week.

Bruno said that’s on top of the cache of supplies Montana already had “for a time just like this,” which included more than 9,000 N95 masks.

North Dakota sent the state an additional 50,000 medical masks this week after Montana put out a call for a mutual aid request as its COVID-19 case count jumps each day.

Bruno said the recent federal arrival filled the state’s list of requests for resources from providers across Montana.

“I absolutely know that those numbers are going to change,” she said.

State officials have said Montana’s caseload is going to rise but it’s still early enough there’s a chance to contain the virus’ spread here.

Rich Rasmussen, president and CEO of the Montana Hospital Association, repeated what public health officials and state officials have preached for weeks — the best chance to do that and avoid overloading hospitals is for people to stay home and keep a distance from one another.

He said if Montana is successful in slowing the virus, hospitals have what they need.

“All the (protective equipment) and all the staff is not going to be enough if people don’t follow social distancing,” Rasmussen said. “No hospital in the country has enough to sustain themselves through this event if we don’t do our job to push down on the potential curve on this virus.”

Dr. Dusty Richardson, the neurosurgeon with Billings Clinic who helped design the plastic masks, said doctors are already shifting to the lack of the supply chain.

“We went from using a surgical mask in every surgical case to one a day, and that’s just in the last two weeks,” Richardson said.

The 3D-printed mask — designed with Billings-area dentist Spencer Zaugg and his son Colton Zaugg — has a snap-in section for filtration material that can be changed out as needed.

Its production is coming out of schools, libraries and homes with 3D printers.

Billings Clinic spokesperson Zach Benoit said the masks could be used as a supplement to surgical masks and for routine patient care when supplies run low “or are depleted.”

Williamson said for now Bozeman Health is working out how to deploy the fabric masks across its locations, including how they’re cleaned and restocked.

She also said the new masks would supplement surgical masks as N95 masks continue to be the standard when doctors are more at-risk of getting sick.

Williamson added while this stage of innovation was provoked by a crisis, it could alter what medical equipment looks like.

“We’ve had so many restrictions and development over the years that led us toward the path of the mass disposable supply we use,” Williamson said. “But I think there’s so much creativity and thought about what’s happening across the globe, this may change the way we practice in the future and with some things that’s very exciting.”

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Katheryn Houghton can be reached at or at 582-2628.