Manchester acquires masks; distributing to first responders, others

Surgical masks, portioned 10 to a bag, await buyers at Kilburn's Convenience Store in Manchester. The store has sold 1,000 of them for $1 each ($10 per bag).

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MANCHESTER — The town has acquired N-95 and surgical cloth face masks to help contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus, distributing them to first responders, medical personnel and employees of essential businesses, and setting aside a number of surgical masks or sale at cost.

The masks were sourced by Manchester residents Corey Orava and Steve Kittredge, thanks to their business expertise and connections, and purchased by the Town of Manchester. Town manager John O'Keefe said the town has distributed about 2,000 masks so far, and the deliveries include a trade with the Bennington Police Department as well as to senior living facilities, convenience stores, supermarkets and health workers.

"We see a benefit to protecting our essential workers in the community," O'Keefe said of the effort.

The town has spent about $20,000 on the effort and will seek reimbursement from federal agencies for the purchase, he said.

Buying the masks now made more sense than waiting and not being able to secure supplies, or having to pay a higher markup, O'Keefe said. "One thing learned about emergencies is if you base everything off getting reimbursed, you won't spend a nickel," he said.

Mask up

The Vermont Department of Health has recommended that everyone wear face masks in public, in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the community and reduce the risk of the health care system being overwhelmed by demand. The surgical masks, which are cloth and attach behind the ears with elastics, are designed to keep operating environments protected, and are intended for single use.

Orava, a veterinarian by training, works for Enso Discoveries, a Manhattan, Kansas-based company that sells veterinary medical equipment. Kittredge is the founder and president of Tributary Sourcing, which locates and arranges importing of components, materials and products for U.S. industrial clients. (Kittredge is not related to Dr. Janel Kittredge of Manchester Medical Center.)

The less-expensive surgical masks are 95.5 cents each and were given to most recipients, O'Keefe said, while the more-expensive N-95 masks cost the town about $3 each and are being reserved for first responders.

"We gave [the town] a better price than anyone else," Orava said.

Additionally, the town sold a number of surgical masks at cost to Kilburn's Convenience Store on Depot Street, and as of Saturday evening, the store had sold 1,000 of them, O'Keefe said.

The store is selling the masks for $1 each, in packages of 10, and making zero profit off the arrangement, store co-owner Cynthia Kilburn said. They're being handled by gloved employees and packaged in new self-closing plastic bags. An initial batch of 600 masks, packaged in groups of 10, sold in 10 hours.

"We make zero off this. We're paying the town exactly what they had to pay," Kilburn said Friday. "It's not a business move. But it brings people in, and it's good for the community."

"It just makes everybody a little more aware," she added. "When I walk into the post office, I feel more comfortable if I'm not the only one wearing a mask."

The town's senior communal living facilities — Bromley Manor, Equinox Terrace and Equinox Village — all received masks, O'Keefe said,. So did the Northshire Medical campus of Southwestern Vermont Health Care, the U.S. Post Office, VNA & Hospice of the Southwest Region, Northshire Rescue Squad, and Northshire Day School, which has been providing day care for the children of essential employees.

The town police department traded masks to the Bennington Police Department for face shields, which will be set aside for medical personnel, O'Keefe said. The town also distributed masks to convenience stores, pharmcies and supermarkets. Shaws and Walgreens already had masks for staff, while Price Chopper and The Pharmacy-Northshire needed them, O'Keefe said.

O'Keefe had been concerned that the town's senior facilities and medical personnel didn't have enough personal protective equipment to adequately protect employees or clients.

Northshire residents, worldwide reach

Orava and Kittredge met and became friends while playing senior hockey at Riley Rink, bonding over postgame beers at the Firefly, the two men said. Once O'Keefe made it known to Orava that the town was interested in buying masks, he and Kitterdge worked together on arranging for the shipment with the help of a mutual friend, Colin Lawrence, who lives works in China.

Lawrence's relationships with factories and understanding of Chinese business rules and regulations were essential in assuring the shipment could happen, Orava and Kittredge said. While China makes 90 percent of the world's masks, demand is high; Orava said he's aware of a single order placed with a factory for 18 million masks.

"There's zero chance we'd be doing what we're doing without Colin and Steve," Orava said. "We're bidding against the world."

"If you don't have someone over there, it could be a guy sitting in a living room with a computer," Kittredge added.

Orava, Kittredge and O'Keefe were all glad they could do a part in securing protective equipment for the community.

"Without a doubt everyone we gave them to was so incredibly grateful," O'Keefe said of making the rounds with masks the past few days. "It seems like such a simple thing — a piece of cloth with rubber bands -- but it's gotten to the pont where it's really difficult to provide basic items to critical employees. It's heartwarming, but it's a little depressing that's where we're at, that such a basic item is so valued. "

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