Healthy You Healthy Hennepin

Boxes of masks

Preventing the spread of COVID-19 by providing millions of masks

August 2022

This is the “behind the scenes” story of how Hennepin County – with the help of over 600 community partners - provided 2.7 million masks (and counting) to our community. 

Masks are a critical prevention strategy for preventing the spread of COVID-19. Distributing masks through community-based organizations helped ensure supplies went where they were needed, addressing health disparities worsened by the pandemic. Working through community organizations - from schools, religious groups, and small businesses to city governments - also built trust and normalized mask wearing.

During COVID-19, Hennepin County provided 2.7 million masks (and counting) to our community, with the help of over 600 community partners.

 

 

How it started

“This started as a grassroots effort,” said Michael Tupy, senior department administrator, Human Resources Workplace Safety and Workers’ Compensation Division.

Early in the pandemic, Kelsey Dawson Walton and her team in Engagement Services began hearing from community about the need for masks. Her team initially acquired 5,000 masks, which they personally delivered to community organizations, but the requests kept coming.

Standing up the mask distribution program took time, creativity, resourcefulness, and physical labor, on the part of county staff from different departments.

Using CDC guidance, Hennepin County Workplace Safety established criteria for evaluating mask quality, then worked with the county purchasing department to identify vendors.

Michael noted, "The hardest part, at first, was finding vendors who could meet our needs and standards." (Remember when masks were hard to find, and everyone was trying to make their own?)

Yvonne Forsythe and her team in County Purchasing worked to source masks locally, supporting small businesses whenever possible. She explains that they didn’t place just “one big order,” but several orders spread across multiple vendors. The original orders amounted to 700,000 masks.

Person transporting boxes of masks

 

 

Learning supply chain logistics

As requests from the community multiplied, Engagement Services and Workplace Safety partnered to fulfill orders and coordinate deliveries.

Tracy Daly, a staff member with the Workplace Safety team said, "At times the number of requests coming in was wild,” exceeding 50 requests (or more than 50,000 masks) per week. Some days they were inundated with calls. Despite having an online request form, a lot of one-to-one customer service was needed.

Masks came to the county by the pallet load: 30 cases per pallet; 1,000 masks per case, bundled in sealed packs of 50. “It was interesting,” Tracy said, “organizations wanted to make sure there was 'enough for everyone.’ They would ask, ‘can I have 100 masks?’" We were actually able to give them much more than that.

Chad Gangelhoff, workplace safety supervisor, was responsible for coordinating logistics. Chad described the extensive labor at the county warehouse to prepare the orders for delivery.

“An army of people helped,” Chad said, “including staff from other parts of the county and volunteers.” Packing took a lot of time, requiring many early mornings. While much of this was hand packing, Chad and a few others had to get forklift certified which, he confirms, is as fun as it sounds.

Figuring out the best way to get masks to community organizations was another puzzle. Engagement Services staffer Pashie Vang recalls the early days of the mask effort, when she had to drive around to different organizations, “with boxes of masks ‘Tetris’ ed’ in my car.”

As the scope and scale expanded, the county contracted with courier services to manage the deliveries.

KN95 distribution table

 

 

Transitioning the work

Fast forward to Summer 2021: it appeared that the pandemic was winding down. The mask distribution program had been a resounding success (over 2 million masks distributed as of July 2021), but demand was declining. The county contemplated ending the program.

Then the Delta variant hit, and community demand skyrocketed. Understanding the continued value, county leadership transferred program responsibility to Hennepin County Public Health.

Response Task Force Member Christine Ashley-Norberg was assigned to coordinate logistics for Public Health in partnership with Engagement Services. She and Pashie Vang worked together to make sure that community organizations continued to get what they needed.

Initially the county provided reusable masks. Later when public health guidance evolved, the county updated and expanded mask offerings. With improved supply chain availability, Hennepin County was able to transition to disposable surgical masks, and later to KN95s.

Boxes of masks

 

 

Expanding into test kits

In January 2022, MDH asked local health departments to help distribute rapid test kits. Christine and Pashie applied the system and processes established by the Workplace Safety team to get 27,795 rapid test kits to community organizations.

The demand for these kits was huge; more than could be accommodated with the supply. Pashie and Christine were tasked with distributing kits equitably, while also accounting for every kit to meet MDH reporting requirements.

Despite tracking and ordering systems, it is never a fully automated process, as anyone who works in supply chain or logistics knows. “There were a lot of moving pieces,” Christine says. “It took a lot of communication to ensure community organizations got what they ordered.”

When it came to distributing the kits, dealing with people’s disappointment was another challenge. “Some groups wanted more [test kits],” Christine explains, “It was hard to turn them down and keep things equitable. We could have given away double the amount.”

Woman wearing a mask
Woman helping a child put on a mask

 

 

Lessons for the future

Everyone we talked to for this story said it was a lot of work but that they were so proud to have been a part of it. Here are some of their observations.

Michael Tupy: "I learned that this team can really step up and do amazing things. "

Pashie Vang: “It’s really the small things that count, and it all leads to a bigger picture.”

Christine Ashley-Norberg: “Don’t underestimate the value of the community partnerships, and work to maintain those relationships. We will need each other again in the future.” 

Thanks

Hennepin County Public Health extends our sincere thanks to all of the county employees, volunteers, and partners who worked to make this program a success and helped protect residents from COVID-19.

 

Written by: Allison Thrash

 

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