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Want to Make Masks for Healthcare Workers? Here’s What You Need to Know

A growing number of apparel makers are attempting to manufacture protective gear in the fight against coronavirus. While the items are easy to sew, the process isn't simple.
Workers at AST Sportswear in California switch from making t-shirts to masks | Source: Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG
By
  • Amy Odell

NEW YORK, United States — One of the critical problems in the fight to care for patients with Covid-19 is a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers. PPE refers to all the things healthcare professionals wear — including but not limited to masks, gowns, and face shields — to protect them from infection while caring for sick patients. Healthcare workers are among those at greatest risk of contracting and spreading the virus, and protecting their health as hospitals face scary surges of seriously ill people is crucial.

Hospitals around the world face shortfalls of PPE. In his daily address, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Friday the state needs 20 million N-95 masks, 30 million surgical masks, 45 million exam gloves, and 20 million gowns (along with 30,000 ventilators). New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Sunday that the city has just one week's worth of medical supplies. Many who can make PPE in the fashion industry have volunteered to do so. Christian Siriano, Dov Charney, Prada, Brandon Maxwell, Chanel and Kering are among those making masks to help with the shortfall; LVMH is sourcing 40 million facemasks from China.

However, the fashion industry isn’t a medical supplier, and pivoting to manufacturing medical-grade PPE isn’t easy. Plus, there’s no centralised federal management of PPE, leaving what’s acceptable up to local hospitals and governments. Even if a company is able to make thousands of masks or gowns a week, it’s natural to wonder if this even helps given the staggering number of items needed.

The consensus seems to be that yes, making PPE does help, even in volumes in the thousands. If you want to help make PPE, here’s what you need to know.

Learn how to make a mask.

They're not hard to sew, but if you want to check out the process, you can consult the videos and guides to making masks that are sprouting up around the internet. Deaconess Health Systems has a written guide and tutorial video here.

The types of donations that institutions accept vary.

Kheimber Wiskamp, founder of the Denver-based apparel manufacturer Manus Supply, decided last week to make 2,000 masks to donate to hospitals. She called hospitals across the country to find out what they would accept and found it varies by institution. Some will accept non-medical grade cotton masks, which can be worn over an N-95 mask to help protect it for repeat use if necessary, but others won’t. If there’s a specific institution you want to donate to, check their website or call to ask what they will and won’t accept.

Wiskamp figured out how to manufacture two types of masks, one cloth carbon filter mask that she said some institutions would accept for use by healthcare workers directly treating Covid-19 patients, and another medical mask that more closely resembles a surgical mask. She plans to share her manufacturing process on her website. 

Sourcing medical-grade fabrics directly is challenging, if not impossible.

"One of the things that's difficult that the fashion industry isn't used to is the extensive validation process these [medical-grade fabrics] take," said textile expert Pascale Guéraçague, who has developed and sourced materials for Lululemon and Alexander Wang. "How do you measure that when pulling from your in-house sample room?"

Companies wanting to make masks may be able to find a partner to help, which is what Karla Colletto swimwear did. Co-founder Lisa Rovan said in an email the brand is being contracted by a distributor who works with hospitals to make the masks. Rovan declined to name their distributor, but said that company is providing the fabrics. They plan to make 10,000 masks per week.

You may be able to create medical-grade PPE — but prepare to do some extra legwork.

Rovan said the research process was difficult and slower than she would have liked, given the dire need for PPE. However, there is no centralised federal resource to help companies with this effort. The resources that were the most helpful, she said, were N.A.bld, the CFDA, NYCEDC and Gerber Technologies.

PPE that is not medical-grade is still useful.

The shortage of masks doesn't only affect those on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic. Healthcare institutions, including nursing homes and hospice centers, around the world will also need masks and other PPE. Deaconess Health Systems, for instance, has a list of organisations needing mask donations and what they will accept on its website.

Additionally, masks made from materials like cotton could be useful in hospitals as protective coverings for N95 masks, which some doctors and nurses are being forced to re-wear as they care for COVID-19 patients.

You may be able to get funding to make PPE.

New York State will fund companies that can make PPE. Those interested can contact Eric Gertler at 212-803-3100 or COVID19supplies@esd.ny.gov.

Finally, if you happen to have real PPE in your possession…

You can sell it to New York State by contacting Simonida Subotic at 646-522-8477 or covid19supplies@exec.ny.gov. You can also donate it to hospitals around the country. FindTheMasks.com has a state-by-state guide to what's needed and what will be accepted as a donation.

We’re tracking the latest on the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on the global fashion business. Visit our live blog for everything you need to know.

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