At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in Arkansas, the Baptist Health system got a surprise donation of one of the most crucial items it needed to keep staff and patients safe: 1,200 N95 respirators, masks that filter out the tiniest particles of virus. That’s not a big number — hospitals are going through hundreds of them every day. But when you’re struggling to buy them, because not enough are being made and because the price has been jacked up by suppliers, any number is welcome.
The masks almost ended up in the dumpster, said Ruth Tippett, who with her husband, Ricky, owns the Cash Saver grocery store in Heber Springs. In 2014, Tippett was in Cleveland for heart surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, and the city was in an uproar because a nurse infected with Ebola had traveled there from Dallas. Tippett said the warehouse that supplied her small grocery store “did a deal” on facemasks; alarmed, she purchased 10 cases. She made a display in the store of the facemasks, “and then, of course, Ebola disappeared. … I couldn’t give them away,” she said. Her attempt to protect the people of this Cleburne County town from Ebola, she added, was made fun of for years. Tippett put the masks back in boxes and stored them on the top of the freezer in the back of the store, and, fortunately, her husband never got around to pitching them.
Then Tippett heard Governor Hutchinson, on an early COVID-19 broadcast, talk about the need for personal protective equipment. “I told my husband, I really feel like we need to be donating some of these masks. Our local hospital is a Baptist, and my granddaughter was born at big Baptist [in Little Rock],” Tippett said. The boxes came down from the freezer, and the Tippetts counted 1,400 masks. They kept 200 for the business, gave the Heber Springs Baptist hospital 200 and provided the rest to Baptist Health in Little Rock.
Tippett said business was chaotic at the Cash Saver for the first couple of weeks of the pandemic. “People were fighting over things,” she said. So she started limiting supplies and is now offering pick-up at the door for the elderly. “Our team, we’re pretty close knit. Everybody has pulled together. … I see a lot of pride” at the store, she said.
When she talked to the Times at the first of April about what was selling, Tippett said, “The big thing is Lysol and dried beans. Toilet paper is still pretty scarce.”