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

As San Diego County issues new rules for wearing face coverings in public, officials are purchasing another 41,000 bandanas to distribute to homeless and vulnerable people in need of protection.

The county’s most recent public health order, which goes into effect Friday night, requires workers at convenience stores, pharmacies, grocery stores and gas stations to wear cloth face coverings to prevent them from spreading the novel coronavirus to customers or each other. All other residents are strongly encouraged to wear face coverings when in public but are not required to do so.

Why this matters

Roughly 900,000 people have contracted the novel coronavirus around the world, including 200,000 in the U.S. and 1,000 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.

As evidence grows that high numbers of asymptomatic people with COVID-19 can transmit the virus to others, federal officials have considered changing its guidelines to advise all U.S. citizens to wear face coverings in public, but haven’t yet. On Tuesday, Riverside County health officials recommended residents wear face coverings such as bandanas or other fabric masks in public settings. The state issued similar guidelines Wednesday, and now San Diego County is doing the same.

Director of Medical Operations Rob Sills said the county is actively purchasing cloth coverings such as bandanas. They are being distributed to homeless people staying at the San Diego Convention Center and vulnerable individuals the county has placed in isolated hotel rooms so they don’t contract or transmit the highly contagious virus.

The bandanas are for people who “may not be able to go and purchase these on their own or get them on their own, so that we can give them to non-healthcare workers,” Sills said at a Thursday news conference. “We’re saving our surgical masks and our supply of N95 (respirator masks) for healthcare workers.”

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The county emphasized that medical-grade masks should be conserved for healthcare workers, and residents should wear cloth coverings instead, such as scarves or bandanas.

The new bulk order of bandanas adds to the 90,000 the county bought last week from the same Mission Valley supplier, the family-owned screen printing company Planet Apparel. The county and Planet Apparel haven’t settled on a price for the new order, but last time the county paid $97,000.

The new order should be finalized within a day and delivered next week, Planet Apparel co-owner Holly Treviño said midday on Thursday. The county is planning to buy the bandanas in “tubular” form, she added, a version of bandanas that can rest on the chest like a necklace and be pulled up over the face and mouth when needed.

Treviño and her sister, Heather, said that by wearing bandanas on top of masks, they can help increase the lifespan of the masks and conserve the dwindling stockpiles of medical gear at healthcare facilities. The face coverings can also be worn by people who don’t need medical-grade protection.

About this report

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.

“I think that not purchasing or not trying to find masks is essential right now to make sure that our healthcare personnel is taken care of first,” Holly Treviño said.

“Tubular bandanas are a way to protect yourself without using masks,” she added.

After the county’s new face covering rule was announced Thursday, Jersey Mike’s contacted Planet Apparel to get bandanas for all their local sandwich shops, Heather Treviño said, adding that people looking to order bandanas before Friday at 11 a.m. can pick them up Saturday morning at the company’s Mission Valley location.

The 12-year-old business is receiving more bandana orders every day from around the country, Treviño said. The San Diego business has been fielding calls from New York, Georgia, Washington, Florida, North Carolina and Texas. The flood of bandana purchases has provided a lifeline for the local company, which is financially stable even as California unemployment claims reach close to one million.

“We’re just really happy to have a product that is needed at this time,” Treviño said.

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)

County public health officer Wilma Wooten said even with the new rule about face coverings, citizens should still practice social distancing and follow the other guidelines the county has put in place. Because there is little evidence about the effectiveness of cloth coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19, she added, people should continue to avoid touching their faces and wash their hands regularly.

As of Thursday, San Diego County has seen 966 COVID-19 cases and 16 deaths.

Officials are not providing their reserve of bandanas to healthcare facilities, and are instead focusing on getting medical staff more N95 respirators and surgical masks. Hospitals and clinics have repeatedly told inewsource about dwindling stockpiles and restrictions on the use of protective gear to conserve supply.

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The county has distributed more than half a million highly protective N95 respirator masks to healthcare providers, county Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said Thursday. It has also doled out more than 200,000 surgical masks, which are less protective than respirators but also used by medical workers treating COVID-19 patients, along with thousands of gloves, gowns, goggles and face shields.

“We continue to fight and get more from every possible place we can,” Fletcher said. “And as we get more, we do everything we can to get folks what they need, and those efforts will certainly continue.”

When asked about whether the county has enough masks at a Tuesday news conference, Sills said the county is doing its best to provide as much protective gear as quickly it can.

“Are we able to fill absolutely every request? No, we’re not,” Sills said. “But we’re doing a very judicial and thoughtful process to get the resources to our first responders, our clinicians, our healthcare workers and those that need it.”

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....