Masks from Mexico: On coronavirus front lines, a midnight dash across the border

Tribune Content Agency

WASHINGTON — Tom Banning was fielding increasingly anxious pleas from doctors across Texas when he got a call from a golfing buddy with an unusual offer.

Banning’s friend, who had connections in the oil and gas business, had 350 cases of surgical masks from a factory in Mexico. He’d managed to get the shipment over the border, navigating drug cartels and border agents demanding payoffs. Did Banning know anyone who could use them?

Banning, who heads the Texas Academy of Family Physicians, didn’t have to think twice.

“We had physicians tying bandanas around their faces,” he said. “It was like they were fortifying the big urban hospitals and leaving the front-line soldiers to fight without defenses.”

Over 72 hours this week, Banning helped get the masks — some 525,000 in all — to nearly every corner of Texas, personally driving some to doctors in Austin and Houston, routing others to physician groups and rural hospitals from the Rio Grande Valley to the Texas panhandle.

The saga of the Mexican masks is just one of the desperate scrambles unfolding across the country as doctors on the front lines of the battle against coronavirus seek the masks, ventilators and other critical medical equipment they need with little to no assistance from the federal government.

Banning’s adventures didn’t just underline the Wild West quality of this race, however. He and his accomplices had to contend with cross-border trade restrictions put in place by the Trump administration that continue to complicate efforts to get supplies to hospitals and doctors.

“We joked that we felt like drug runners, except we weren’t making a dime,” said John Henderson, chief executive of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals, who worked with Banning to distribute the masks.

The White House still hasn’t lifted all tariffs on imported medical products. Restrictions on imports from China remain in place, for example, although the U.S. trade representative’s office said a week ago it was soliciting comments on further tariff reductions.

“There are a lot of challenges in the supply chain right now,” said Michael J. Alkire, president of Premier, one of the nation’s largest medical distribution companies.

President Donald Trump also hasn’t directed federal departments to centrally procure and distribute supplies, an authority that agencies have used in past disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

That’s fueling increasing desperation in emergency rooms, ambulances and physicians’ offices, where front-line medical workers are being forced to reuse masks, gowns and other equipment and guard them like illicit drugs.

Texas hasn’t yet seen the crush of coronavirus cases that is inundating parts of New York, California and Washington state. But the virus has been spreading rapidly in Texas, with positive cases in more than 65 counties. And many of the state’s medical providers warn they are woefully unprepared.

Dr. Erica Swegler, a family physician in Austin who last week saw her first case of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, had been trying to get surgical masks, respirator masks and hand sanitizer since February, but her orders were denied.

Like providers across the country, she’s been forced to reuse gowns, masks and other equipment or simply do without. The mother of one of her nurses is a seamstress and began sewing cloth masks for the staff.

“We’re all committed to our mission of helping patients, but you wouldn’t send soldiers into battle this unprepared,” Swigler said.

One rural hospital in the state reported that three nurses, including one who was pregnant, walked out in frustration over the lack of protective equipment, Henderson said.

Banning, 47, a convivial Texan who has headed the state’s largest medical specialty organization for 13 years, took to invoking the Alamo. Then, he got word of the shipment from Mexico.

Banning’s friend, who asked not to be identified out of concern over jeopardizing continuing efforts to get medical supplies, had connections to factories across the border that produced oil and gas equipment.

About two weeks ago, some of those manufacturers started switching over to produce medical supplies. The equipment, including surgical masks, hadn’t been certified by U.S. regulators.

For an increasingly desperate workforce in Texas, that didn’t matter.

“Anything was better than nothing,” Banning said.

The shipment of masks got held up at the border over the weekend when the U.S. and Mexico agreed to halt non-essential travel between the two countries. It got across Monday, only to be held up again Monday night by a nighttime curfew in the Rio Grande Valley.

Finally, on Tuesday morning, Banning received word that the masks — packed into the back of a midsized U-Haul — were on the east side of Austin at his friend’s offices.

Banning and his 12-year-old son jumped into his SUV and drove over to confirm the equipment was legitimate. Then, the scramble was on to distribute them.

A large medical group in Dallas, some three hours to the north, sent a car to pick up two cases. Another car took a shipment to San Antonio.

Rural hospitals across the state sent drivers to get masks. One hospital administrator from Hereford — a small community 500 miles away in cattle country near Amarillo — personally flew down in a small plane.

Banning and his son took seven cases and drove 2 1/2 hours to Houston to bring masks to a physicians’ group there that treated the state’s first COVID-19 case. The group was down to five days’ worth of supplies.

Meanwhile, Banning’s staff emailed doctors around Austin asking who needed masks. By the time Banning got home from Houston at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday evening, he had 12 voicemails and 32 emails from local physicians’ offices.

One network of clinics that serves low-income patients in Austin was on the verge of having to close two locations because they had no more protective equipment.

On Tuesday night, Banning broke open the remaining boxes he had stashed in his living room and began apportioning the masks into zip-lock bags to deliver around Austin.

He took a break at 2 a.m. Wednesday, got up three hours later to finish the job and got back in his truck at 8:30 to drive around Austin all day, making deliveries.

“It’s nuts,” he said. “I’m not a procurement specialist, but I guess this is better than asking your grandmother or your children to make cloth masks.”

Banning and his friends are now working on getting more shipments from Mexico, including a delivery of 55-gallon drums of hand sanitizer for which many small hospitals are desperate.

At Swegler’s small practice on the north side of Austin, which got a package of 30 masks from Banning on Wednesday, the delivery means she can keep going for another few days. Swegler is conserving by only using two masks a day, wearing them under a cloth mask.

“The sad part is we still don’t hear anyone in government saying when we are going to get more supplies,” she said.


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