A box of bandanas is shown at the offices of Planet Apparel in San Diego on March 26, 2020. San Diego County purchased bandanas from the company as fears of mask shortages escalated. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

A family-owned Mission Valley screen printing company has begun selling bulk orders of bandanas to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, and San Diego County was first in line to make a purchase.

Invoices show the county bought nearly 90,000 bandanas for about $97,000 from Planet Apparel, a 12-year-old business that calls itself one of the largest producers of custom bandanas in the U.S. The county made the order on March 19 and 20 and received the shipment on Tuesday, said Planet Apparel co-owner Holly Treviño.

Why this matters

Roughly 400,000 people have contracted the novel coronavirus around the world, including 68,000 in the U.S. and 300 in San Diego.

As the virus continues to spread, shortages of protective masks can lead to an increased risk of transmission and endanger healthcare workers.

“The county of San Diego is thinking outside the box,” Treviño said. “They’re making moves because as we know, supplies are just, they’re going away so quickly. So they were just like, ‘Lock it down, get it to us and then we’ll store it and then we’ll figure out distribution.’”

The Treviño sisters, Holly and Heather, came up with the idea last week after learning about new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for how healthcare workers can protect themselves as the national stockpile of protective masks dwindles.

The CDC’s updated recommendations say workers can use bandanas as a “last resort,” but because the effect of wearing them is “unknown,” “caution should be exercised” in these cases.

Heather Treviño carries a box of bandanas through the offices of Planet Apparel in San Diego on March 26, 2020.(Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

While county officials have maintained that it currently has enough masks, San Diego healthcare workers have complained that restrictions on mask use are putting them in danger, and some local healthcare clinics are already struggling to get the protective equipment they need. Plus, around the country, mask shortages have resulted in health centers shutting down and a reliance on volunteers sewing thousands of masks by hand.

Rob Sills, director of the county’s medical operations center, said at a Tuesday news conference that the county has an adequate supply of protective masks and isn’t planning on providing bandanas to healthcare workers for the time being, but it’s preparing for what could happen two months in the future.

Read more: See all of our coverage of the coronavirus outbreak and the response by local leaders and public health officials to the pandemic.

“We are looking out 60 days ahead at what our possible supply is and what alternatives could be like,” Sills said. “And that does include the use of bandanas or other supplies if we do not continue getting our supplies through the state and the feds.”

The county received its first shipment of protective gear from the state’s stockpile Tuesday, county Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said, and it was being distributed immediately. The state uses the county’s 10-day burn rate of supplies to extrapolate the amount of resources needed, Fletcher added, and the county is now making a second request for more equipment.

The county ordered two kinds of bandanas: about a third were traditional square fabrics that can be tied around the face and the other two thirds were “tubular” versions that can be worn like a necklace and pulled up over the nose and mouth when needed. Most of them are blank white bandanas, but the county also purchased some in royal blue, dark green, navy, turquoise and sky blue.

As the coronavirus spreads across the U.S. and in San Diego County, so does uncertainty. To provide you with accurate in-depth reporting on the pandemic, KPBS and inewsource are collaborating in their news coverage.

“What (the county) did is they had taken bandana samples we had provided into a boardroom meeting and there were a couple of nurses that had said they did like this style better,” said Heather Treviño, who co-owns Planet Apparel with her sister, while pointing to the tubular bandana around her neck during a video call. “Because not only can you just wear it all day without having to re-tie it, it’s very comfortable and it feels very secure.”

The co-owners said they expect the county will make more purchases throughout the year.

In the past week, Planet Apparel has been in touch with government agencies in New York, Seattle, Dallas, San Francisco and other coronavirus hotspots about ordering polyester bandanas, which are woven more tightly than cotton bandanas are and so are more protective. The business has also started talking to local hospitals and healthcare clinics about what they’re offering.

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“I think that there’s still a lot of people in the industry that say, ‘Oh, the masks, they’re coming, they’re coming, they’re going to be replenished,’ Holly Treviño said. “And we’re hoping that that is true, but that’s where we’re saying, ‘Look, you might want to consider this as well.”

UC San Diego Health and Sharp Healthcare are trying to increase their supplies of masks through donation drives, but they currently aren’t accepting bandanas or homemade masks.

UCSD Medical School students Caitlyn Cella Kellogg, left, and Aislinn Katherine Mcmillan collect masks for healthcare professionals at La Jolla Shores, March 25, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Planet Apparel is trying to educate healthcare workers and officials about the ways they think bandanas could be helpful during the pandemic. The Treviño sisters said they’re not medical experts, and they’re looking for feedback from medical professionals once they’ve had a chance to try them out.

The goal of wearing the bandanas is not to replace face masks, the co-owners said, but to help prolong the lifespan of face masks by wearing the extra fabric on top. Depending on their needs, healthcare facilities could throw away the bandanas after use or sanitize them in industrial washing machines so they can be reworn.

The company is also starting to reach out to grocery stores and other local businesses still operating during the state lockdown to provide bandanas to workers who may not need something as robust as a surgical mask.

“We are all about helping others to get to know something we are so familiar with and at the same time as our business has come down tremendously we would love the help as well,” Heather Treviño said.

“Everything comes full circle.”

KPBS health reporter Tarryn Mento contributed to this story.

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Jill Castellano is a former investigative data coordinator for inewsource. When she's not deep in a spreadsheet or holed up reporting and writing her next story, she's probably hiking, running or rock climbing. She also loves playing board games and discussing the latest chapters with her book club....