Homer residents, businesses, organizations step up to help amid pandemic

Last week, Homer saw its first positive case of a resident living in the community. As the number of COVID-19 cases climbs daily statewide and on the Kenai Peninsula, Homer volunteers and businesses have mobilized to help out.

At Kachemak Bay Campus, with hand-on lab classes closed for the semester, the college gathered boxes of personal protective gear to take to South Peninsula Hospital. Sewers have started making cloth masks to supplement critical medical-grade masks. Local residents are signing up to go grocery shopping for those at risk or those who can’t leave the house, and local manufacturers are preparing to offer their services to supplement the needs for protective gear and other medical supplies.

The Homer Foundation also has set up a community to fund to aid nonprofits affected by the pandemic.

Kachemak Bay Campus, Homer’s branch campus of Kenai Peninsula College, dipped into its own supplies of personal protective gear to help out South Peninsula Hospital. Last Wednesday, KBC Director Reid Brewer and volunteers loaded up several boxes of masks, gloves, goggles and alcohol wipes and delivered them to a parking lot near the hospital. The college had made arrangements with the hospital to safely deliver supplies, but anyone wanting to donate supplies is now asked to coordinate with the city.

Because the needs of the community vary in what skills and supplies are needed, the City of Homer is the official hub for all donations. The city is being tasked with distributing donations to the appropriate places. A link for people to connect with providers is on the city website at https://www.cityofhomer-ak.gov/covid19/donations-volunteering.

Student Susan Kaplan had the idea of seeing if the college had supplies it could share with local health care providers. Kaplan is working on prerequisites to get a health care degree, possibly as a radiology technician. She’s taking an anatomy and physiology class this semester with instructor Amy Landess.

“Ironically just before spring break we had watched ‘Contagion’ with my class,” Kaplan said. “And then this all happened.”

With the campus closed and students moving to online classes, that meant labs in dissection and practicums for nursing or certified nursing assistants also couldn’t be held. Kaplan has friends and family working in health care, and one night she had trouble falling asleep thinking of them and how hospitals faced shortages of equipment all across the nation and in Homer.

“I thought ‘there’s all this stuff in the lab.’ … I knew there was equipment at the school. I didn’t know how much, but I knew there was some.”

Kaplan talked to Landess about donating supplies, and Landess said she would talk to Brewer. Brewer gave his OK and the college gathered together protective gear.

KBC health care programs have partnered with the hospital over the years to train students in health care professions. Its Certified Nursing Assistant, or CAN, program regularly graduates about a dozen students every year get jobs at SPH, local medical clinics and assisted living homes.

“It’s been a great partnership over the years,” Brewer said. “We’ve been glad to do what we can to help. … We’re glad to share the stuff we had.”

Some of the gear had originally been donated to the college by the hospital while other supplies the college had purchased. Brewer said Kenai Peninsula College in Soldotna also donated protective gear to Central Peninsula Hospital.

In all, KBC gave the hospital about 140 pairs of sterile gloves, 750 pairs of nonsterile gloves, about 45 gowns, nine goggles, almost 100 molded face masks, about 90 light-duty face masks, and 600 alcohol prep wipes.

“We are deeply touched by the generosity of our community,” said SPH Public Information Officer Derotha Ferraro. “The calls, the supplies, the scramble to help has been so deeply appreciated.”

Ferraro said other organizations also have donated, such as Homer Electric Association, which gave SPH a large quantity of N95 masks — the heavier duty masks that if fitted properly can protect doctors and nurses from novel coronavirus droplets. The hospital is still in needs of gloves in sizes small to extra-large, unopened bottles of hand sanitizer, procedure and surgical masks, handsewn hair and head covers, and handsewn face masks.

One group organized by Michelle Melchert and her sister Jennifer Cabana are helping to fill the gap with handsewn masks as well as a place to collect them. Melchert owns Red Fish Custom Framing and Cabana owns Skiff Chicks Custom Designs, both businesses considered nonessential under Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s recent mandate closing all but essential businesses.

With their work shut down, Melchert said, “We wanted to help the community in a centralized drop point. It’s helpful to the hospital for getting these supplies.”

At Skiff Chicks they have a box to collect handsewn masks that’s monitored by security cameras. Melchert said she’s working with several businesses and organizations to collect materials and make masks. NOMAR donated elastic straps. Kachemak Bay Rotary, the American Legion, 907 Vets and the Kachemak Bay Quilters also have either donated material or made masks. There’s also a Facebook group that has patterns for masks, https://www.facebook.com/groups/akmaskmakers.

“It’s been amazing,” Melchert said of the effort.

In two weeks they’ve already had 50 cloth masks made and donated. While the masks don’t fully protect against the novel coronavirus, if worn over N95 or other masks, they can help extend the life of the more critical masks.

The masks also can be worn by people who think they might be sick to keep their coughing from spreading the coronavirus.

“Nobody wants to be a carrier and be responsible for spreading this illness,” Melcher said.

Melchert said some essential workers also have asked for masks to wear.

“We do not sell this stuff. … it’s a donation,” she said. “It’s for the community, the hospital, first responders, essential workers, at risk (people). We’re just trying to help the community. There’s been some great community input in this.”

The group also is making headbands with buttons that the N95 masks can loop on to. The straps on the N95 masks attach over the ears and can chafe skin, and the handbands make them more comfortable to wear, Melchert said.

A U.S. Army veteran, Melcher worked as a combat medic and has incident command training.

“That kicks in my background,” she said of the pandemic. “… We’re at the end of the road. We know supplies are limited. Anchorage is getting hit hard right now. The cases are starting to pop up. It’s important we use what we have as a community.”

A member of 907 Vets, Melchert said that group is working to help local veterans affected by the pandemic. 907 Vets has created care kits for veterans at risk, with supplies of hand sanitizer, soaps, gloves and masks as well as information on COVID-19.

“Our mission is, we’re inclusive,” she said. “We want to build a gap between the community. … We’re a group of veterans who want to be kind and help out.”

907 Vets has a Facebook page. For more information, email 907VETS@gmail.com or call 907-756-8387.

“We’re scared,” Melchert said of the pandemic. “Everybody’s scared, nervous. We know what’s out there. We’re doing our best. … The thing to remember is we’re all in this together. We’re depending on each other to do the right thing.”

The Homer Foundation also has set up a portal to channel donations toward nonprofit organizations serving the most vulnerable families and individuals on the southern Kenai Peninsula. One hundred percent of donations to this new fund will go to agencies providing support for food, housing and other needs of those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve surveyed our community partners and heard their needs,” Mike Miller,Executive Director of the Homer Foundation, wrote in a press release. “We’re only seeing the beginning of these effects. Local providers are already straining to deal with the new realities of the COVID-19 virus. Having access to this fund will make their jobs easier.”

Priorities for the Homer Foundation COVID-19 Response Fund will be grants to nonprofits providing human services and emergency assistance and grants to nonprofits serving vulnerable populations, including children who are out of school, families without childcare, people who have lost a source of income due to the pandemic, people who are high risk medically, seniors, veterans, people who are homeless, and individuals who lack paid sick leave or health insurance.

This new grant fund comes with a shorter application and quick response. The maximum amount per grant is $2,500 per request. To donate, see the COVID-19 Response Fund link on the Homer Foundation website at https://www.homerfoundation.org. The Foundation can also be reached via info@homerfoundation.org or call the office at 907-235-0541.

Elsewhere, local residents are volunteering to hit the aisles of grocery stores to shop for the elderly, those at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 or those currently in quarantine or self isolation at home. Chuck Wright created the Facebook group Homer Helpers, which to date has 318 members.

Wright said the idea came about as a way to organize people who wanted to help with things like grocery shopping in one place. His girlfriend works at South Peninsula Hospital, and Wright said she has been getting questions from people worried about how they will access everyday necessities if they have to be self isolated at home for the recommended 14 days.

“I just wanted people to know that they have a place,” Wright said.

The Salvation Army has volunteered to be a call center for people who need help with groceries. The number to call if you need help getting groceries or other essential deliveries is 310-803-0588.

People who have time and who are not compromised or quarantining can post on the Homer Helpers Facebook page advertising how they are able to help, and when. The idea is to then connect them with the people who need assistance, Wright said.

And it’s not just for groceries.

“Some people have offered to go to the post office,” Wright said.

Another person messaged Wright offering to help older residents get their gardens going as spring approaches, he said.

Wright advises those who do help others by doing their grocery shopping or running other errands to be careful. Bring and use hand sanitizer, he said, and keep your hands clean before handing supplies off to someone. Wright suggested leaving the supplies or food outside on someone’s porch rather than bringing them inside.

Bjørn Olson, a local environmental activist and outdoor adventure, is taking precautions seriously when he shops for others. Olson, acting independently of the Homer Helpers group, has begun offering every Monday to shop for people and families that can’t leave the house.

He has a very strict protocol, one that’s been drawing the eyes of fellow shoppers in his direction.

Olson already owned a dry suit. He wears that, coupled with a respirator (which he also already owned before the COVID-19 outbreak) and goggles. Olson makes sure that all the skin around his hands and face is covered and sealed.

When he delivers groceries, Olson said he also takes care to leave the supplies outside to allow time for any potentially dangerous germs to dissipate before the recipient brings them inside.

“I’m learning about this virus at the same pace that everyone else is,” Olson said.

Olson said he realizes he’s in a demographic where, should he contract the novel coronavirus, he would not be at high risk for getting very sick. That’s not the case with a lot of elderly or immunocompromised residents, he said, and that’s why he’s volunteering to shop for them.

“I believe strongly in the ethic of mutual aid,” Olson said. “… This is an interesting time right now that we’re in, where it’s kind of up to us to do what we can as individuals to make a difference.”

It’s not just individuals and groups stepping up to help — two local manufacturers are offering to lend a hand as well. NOMAR, which makes a lot of outdoor and fishing gear that utilizes tough, heavy fabrics, has been tapped to be on a statewide list of businesses with the capability to help produce needed equipment here in Alaska for the health care sector.

Founder Kate Mitchell said the company has been contacted as part of a statewide survey of manufacturers to compile a list of Alaska production capabilities. At NOMAR, those capabilities are primarily cutting.

“We can cut the pieces that’ll go into the masks very quickly,” Mitchell said of her staff and the NOMAR equipment.

Mitchell said NOMAR also has the ability to sew masks or other supplies, but that the company’s focus is more on heavy industrial fabrics.

“We’re capable of doing whatever the state needs, truthfully,” Mitchell said.

Manufacturing personal protective equipment and medical supplies in Alaska is still in its early stages, and Mitchell said nothing is set in stone for NOMAR, but that the company is ready if called on.

“The small Alaska manufacturers are already filling a niche for Alaska,” she said. “And so, what is the current need, and how can we help?”

Another business changing their production focus is Frontier CBDs on Pioneer Avenue. The company has shifted some of its production away from CBD gummies, lotions, shampoos and other products toward the creation of hand sanitizer, another supply the state is short on at the moment.

Shawn McDonough, one of the owners, said the company has been operating out of the Wildberry building on Pioneer Avenue for just over a year. With a staff of five, he said the company is working to make both hand sanitizer and cleaners using its existing equipment.

Frontier CBDs was not approached by the state, but rather will be producing hand sanitizer and disinfecting cleaners for other recreational marijuana-related businesses within the state, as well as for the local community.

“We just took it upon ourselves,” McDonough said. “… Basically we’re working with about 66 stores here in the state right now and I’d say about 44 of them are recreational marijuana stores.”

McDonough said the thought is to provide not only stores where his products are sold, but local stores as well, with the ability to keep employee hands and building surfaces clean to help curb the spread of COVID-19. Ulmers Drug and Hardware in Homer is one of the local stores that will be getting donations of hand sanitizer and cleaners, McDonough. Frontier CBDs has offered donations to the communities of Homer and Anchor Point, including “anyone and everyone in the city,” he said.

The company is able to use some of its existing vats used for products like shampoo or lotion to make the sanitizer. The difficult part, McDonough said, has been getting his hands on the alcohol needed for the product, which is also hard to come by at this time. So far, he’s been making due by going to stores and buying alcohol himself here and there.

Frontier CBDs traveled to Anchorage on Tuesday to deliver the first batch of sanitizer to stores there.

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com. Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.

Michelle Melchert unloads personal protective gear donated by the Kachemak Bay Campus at South Peninsula Hospitla on Marh 25, 2020, in Homer, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Susan Kaplan)

Michelle Melchert unloads personal protective gear donated by the Kachemak Bay Campus at South Peninsula Hospitla on Marh 25, 2020, in Homer, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Susan Kaplan)

Kachemak Bay Campus Director Reid Brewer moves boxes of personal protective gear from the college for transport to South Peninsula Hospital on March 25, 2020, in Homer, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Susan Kaplan)

Kachemak Bay Campus Director Reid Brewer moves boxes of personal protective gear from the college for transport to South Peninsula Hospital on March 25, 2020, in Homer, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Susan Kaplan)