SALEM, Oregon — Hospitals throughout the world have been unable to get new supplies of personal protective equipment such as face masks, gowns and gloves due to the shortage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thousands of inmates in Oregon could be one solution.
Oregon Corrections Enterprises, a semi-independent state agency, is producing 30,000 non-medical face masks for use by the Department of Corrections and is seeking to make medical-grade masks for hospitals that could help fill the shortfall.
“In an emergency you can’t get the help quick enough,” OCE Administrator Ken Jeske said.
A 1994 ballot measure required inmates in Oregon to work 40 hours each week or receive on-the-job training.
Oregon Corrections Enterprises has operated at most Oregon prisons since 1999 and receives no taxpayer dollars. It is self-sustaining through sales of its products and services.
Its inmate employees normally produce items such as park benches, gun safes, grills, furniture and clothing. They also provide services such as working in a DMV call center.
A few weeks ago, the Oregon Employment Department expressed need for hand sanitizer stations.
The furniture factory at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem abruptly shifted its production to make stands and completed 80 in less than a day.
Jeske said the 30,000 non-medical masks OCE is making from cotton are for the Department of Corrections for use by inmates and guards to reduce the risk of infection.
“They’re not a medical-grade masks so they would just go to everybody,” he said.
With the significant need for medical-grade masks, FEMA approached the Department of Corrections to see if OCE could make masks and what steps it would take to ensure they are sterile.
Jeske said he has been meeting with correctional industries across the country to share information about how to make the masks.
Making a certifiable medical-grade mask isn’t like sewing a throw pillow and most manufacturers closely guard their manufacturing processes, Jeske said.
Then there is the question of getting the masks certified for use by health care professionals.
“We’re also working with … the FDA and trying to figure out if we can get certified ... meaning the correct type of fabric and the right type of material,” Jeske said.
“We finally sourced the material that we believe is actually the right material and now we’re talking with the Oregon Health Authority, FEMA, and making sure we can be 1, not sued, and 2, produce adequate supply.”
OCE has four sewing operations around the state: at Eastern Oregon Corrections Institution in Pendleton, Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla, Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville and Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario capable of mass producing the masks.
Jeske said the department also is researching making hand sanitizer and gowns for health care workers.
He said additional steps have been taken to protect its inmates who provide laundry service for 33 customers, including public and private hospitals in Oregon.
“This work gives them an opportunity to feel they can contribute to society and help themselves and other human beings. It is truly a heartwarming experience and something we are proud of,” Jeske said.
This article was originally published by the Salem Statesman-Journal, one of more than a dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving health issue.
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