National Cathedral finds 5,000 masks that had been stashed in its crypt for over 10 years

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WASHINGTON (CNN) – As head stone mason at the National Cathedral in Washington, Joe Alonso knows the ins and outs of the church better than anyone.

So as he read news of the coronavirus pandemic, Alonso remembered that there was something stowed away in the cathedral's crypt level that could help efforts to combat the virus: 5,000 N95 respirator masks.

With the number of coronavirus patients soaring, health care workers are facing an extreme shortage of masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has even advised health care workers to reuse masks or use bandanas and scarves because something is better than nothing.

Knowing how desperately needed these masks were, officials at the cathedral immediately contacted both the manufacturer and the CDC to confirm that they were still safe to use. Then, they got to work figuring out a donation plan.

"In these difficult and trying times, the Cathedral community is doing everything we can to help protect the most vulnerable among us from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic," the Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral, said in a statement.

On Wednesday, Hollerith and others helped load boxes of masks into a van to deliver them to local hospitals. The cathedral said 2,000 masks were delivered to Children's National and 3,000 masks were delivered to Georgetown University Hospital. "The Cathedral will retain a small number of masks to facilitate in pastoral care needs," it said in its news release.

The masks were purchased back in 2006, when the bird flu known as H5N1 had the world on edge. They were meant to allow the cathedral's clergy to "provide pastoral care without putting their own health at risk," according to the cathedral.

But after the flu had dissipated without causing much damage in the US, the masks were put in storage and forgotten about.

"We have made significant adjustments to our worship programs and made church services available online," Hollerith said. "And now we're prepared to take this additional, proactive step to ensure thousands have access to protection that otherwise may never have been available to them."

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