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US Apparel Makers to Churn Out Masks for Healthcare Workers

The US healthcare system is in urgent need of personal protective equipment, and the fashion industry is responding.
Los Angeles Apparel has started producing masks | Source: Instagram @losangelesapparel
  • Amy Odell

NEW YORK, United States —  As the US healthcare system braces for an influx of Covid-19 patients, hospitals are already feeling pinched for supplies as they ration existing stock. On Friday, New York City's Department of Health warned medical providers that the city faces a critical shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks, gowns and gloves.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo tweeted Friday to ask companies that are able to create masks to get in touch with his office. Designer Christian Siriano responded right away to offer his team's help. Siriano, who hasn't yet made any layoffs, sent his seamstresses to work from home with sewing machines and fabric last week. "Our sewers are sitting at home. They want to do something. They want to help," Siriano said. "We make insane, crazy things. This is a very easy thing for us to make." He expects to have produced 1,000 masks within a few days.

The masks Siriano’s team makes will be more like a surgical mask than the N95 masks, which filter out 90 percent of airborne particles, recommended for healthcare workers on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak. Since everyone working in a hospital needs a mask right now, his masks will be intended for hospital workers like receptionists and those in other areas of medicine who aren’t directly treating Covid-19 patients. He’ll use a cotton blend fabric, probably in white or black, of which he has thousands of yards in stock; it can withstand several washes with bleach.

We make insane, crazy things. This is a very easy thing for us to make.

The governor’s office responded to Siriano’s offer to help immediately; they’re working on a logistics plan for distributing his team’s masks.

Doctors who are reusing equipment they’d normally discard say the fashion industry’s contribution is vital. “Not only is PPE meant to protect us, but it can also be dangerous to us. If we don’t take it off properly or store it properly, it can also transmit the infection to us,” said Anna Yaffee, an emergency medicine physician at Emory University in Atlanta.

Masks can pick up viral particles, which is why they’re usually discarded after use when treating a patient with something like COVID-19. But with the supply of N95 masks low, doctors are trying to clean them with Clorox wipes between patients or wearing them under softer surgical masks. But the masks aren’t easy to clean and their integrity diminishes with each wear.

The shortage of masks is so dire that the CDC has even recommended doctors use bandanas in place of medical masks. The hashtag #GetMePPE reveals the lengths medical workers are going to preserve supplies and protect themselves; one hospital even has workers storing their masks in brown paper bags with their names on them. "I'm using a single surgical mask today. In different times I'd change masks multiple times a day," said a New York-area physician who wasn't authorised by their hospital to speak to the media.

Healthcare workers say they would also welcome donations of single-use gowns and eye protection.

On the West Coast, American Apparel-founder Dov Charney has offered to use his Los Angeles Apparel factories to make face masks. He’s been in communication with the city of Los Angeles, the city of New York, the governor of New Mexico and the federal government about getting masks out to healthcare workers. On Friday, he said the US government was shipping him and one other partner 50,000 pounds of chemically treated fabric appropriate for a medical setting for masks.

Charney said he knew a mask shortage would be coming six weeks ago. His factory workers wear masks and he was having trouble buying them from Asia. He hopes to have his production scaled up to 10,000 masks a day by Monday, and eventually produce 250,000 a week.

After Charney announced his plan to make the masks on Instagram earlier this week, he faced backlash because the masks are not hospital-grade. The design features ruching at the chin and a wire over the nose for a snug fit. "We're not making any claims that this is the health solution of the world. But any textile you put on your face is going to be better than no textile," he said. The masks can be purchased by consumers for $30 for three, or $5 per mask in large wholesale orders; he's also donating them where necessary.

He’s working on implementing changes in his factory to make the conditions safe for workers. These include practising social distancing, acquiring 100 new sewing machines, sanitising equipment and regularly checking workers’ temperatures. Anyone who wants to get in touch with him about acquiring masks can text him at 213-923-7943.

Founders of Karla Colletto Swimwear, Karla Colletto and Lisa Rovan, have also converted their Virginia factory to produce masks in partnership with local medical supply distributors.

The fashion industry around the world is responding to the global need for medical supplies. LVMH pivoted its perfume factories to make alcoholic gel, and the textile companies Miroglio Group and Artemisa in Italy are making masks to assist with the outbreak there.

Another US-based doctor who wasn't authorised by their hospital to speak to the media said the fashion industry should be cautious of glamorising masks, especially during the current crisis. "I saw an Instagram when the pandemic first started of a lady at the Chanel show with a face mask with beautiful flowers on it," the doctor said. "That is ridiculous. You're telling people masks are sexy and they're fashionable but that's completely missing the point. People in society shouldn't be wearing these masks."

Masks are only advised for healthcare workers and people showing symptoms of infection, per CDC guidelines.

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.

Related Articles:
Fashion and Beauty Factories Are Shifting to Make Masks, Sanitiser and Other Pandemic Essentials

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