LEAVENWORTH – Pilot Clarke Manning soared over the Cascade Range on May 1 with precious cargo — 22,500 simple procedure masks headed for Cascade Medical in Leavenworth.

A 20-year Air Force veteran, Manning was one of about 15 pilots from Boeing Employees Flying Association who volunteered to fly over a million masks from China to health care facilities statewide.

As the threat of novel coronavirus loomed, Cascade Medical staff tried to stock up on protective gear in the midst of a nationwide supply shortage. The critical access hospital needed procedure masks most, as best practices recommend that facilities mask both patients and care providers. Procedure masks help limit the virus’s spread by catching respiratory droplets from coughs, sneezes and spit.

“The national supply chain was still not fully functioning, and we were not receiving full orders of any protective equipment,” Cascade Medical CEO Diane Blake said.

Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA) heard similar struggles statewide, from urban medical systems to rural hospitals. The organization took an unprecedented step. It purchased more than 1 million masks from Dingyi North America and Bartell Drug, then sold the masks at-cost to hospitals, long-term care facilities and organizations serving individuals experiencing homelessness.

“WSHA has never imported or distributed supplies to its members or other organizations, and we had no idea how to do it, but we made it happen nonetheless,” WSHA CEO Cassie Sauer said.

Kaiser Permenante donated warehouse space in Renton. Boeing Employees Flying Association volunteered pilots to distribute the equipment to medical facilities statewide.

WSHA also secured a grant for hospitals to help with the COVID-19 crisis. Larger medical systems agreed to forego their share to help smaller hospitals. Cascade Medical used its full $20,000 portion on protective equipment.

“Protecting our staff and patients is our top priority,” Blake said. “These masks from WSHA gave us a huge boost and ensures that we can continue to keep patients and staff safe for weeks to come. We are grateful for this added support towards caring for our community.”

On May 1, physical therapist Chris Allen drove to Pangborn Memorial Airport to meet Manning and help him unload the five big boxes from the small plane.

Manning flew back over the mountains at a higher altitude as afternoon winds caused turbulence below. For Manning, the mission was personal. His father and brother are doctors and his sisters are nurses. His brother recently lost a close friend to COVID-19. She worked as a nurse in the Reno area.

“The risks are real,” Manning said. “Our healthcare workers are putting their lives on the line, and I was thrilled to fly these masks out to them. To me, they’re heroes.”

Rachel Hansen is public relations coordinator for Cascade Medical.