Broadway Seamstresses Step In Where Federal Government Fails

Peter Sterndale sews handmade masks for his daughter Elizabeth Sterndale, a certified nursing assistant, to wear while screening visitors for Covid-19 at the acute rehabilitation hospitals she works at in Colorado. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Sterndale.)

(CN) – It took a handful of 3-D printing hobbyists and out-of-work Broadway seamstresses and costumers to do what the federal government has failed to do during the Covid-19 pandemic: send critically necessary masks and personal protective equipment to health care workers on the frontlines.

State-by-state as the country has gone into lockdown during the worldwide outbreak of the novel coronavirus respiratory disease, hospitals and medical facilities have scrambled to ensure they have enough personal protective equipment for health care workers caring for those exposed to the virus.

Reports of nurses and frontline health care workers being advised by hospital administrators to reuse personal protective equipment — and some workers using trash bags, diapers or swim goggles to protect against cough and sneeze droplets that spread the virus — has prompted those with STEM skills, garment production and even DIYers to answer the call to quickly make PPE.

DIYers Get Sewing

Even though Elizabeth Sterndale, a certified nursing assistant and nursing student in Colorado, had to turn away would-be visitors at the acute rehabilitation hospital where she works for displaying symptoms of Covid-19, she told Courthouse News her hospital was still allowing two visitors per patient.

Many visitors are caretakers for people in rehabilitation and need to learn from health care workers how to take care of their loved ones at home, she said.

Sterndale said her hospital is due to run out of surgical masks by the end of the month and does not use the N95 respirator masks used by health care workers at facilities confronting the Covid-19 pandemic.

So Sterndale employed the help of her father, Peter, who got to work sewing homemade masks she can wear while interacting with people at the hospital. Some studies have found there is no difference between surgical medical masks and cloth masks being made in craft rooms and at kitchen tables across the country.

She’s also reusing her surgical masks by baking them at low temperatures in her oven after a study showed the similar SARS coronavirus can be killed in 30 minutes when heated to 167 degrees.

“We’re all really, really angry,” Sterndale said of the national run on personal protective equipment.

“This has been known to be an issue and it would come to the U.S. for months,” Sterndale added. “We should have been better prepared. It’s like sending someone to war without their combat gear.”

Real-Time Quality Control

Mike Rushton, a robotics engineer and member of Lowell Makes, a nonprofit shared community workshop and laboratory in Lowell, Massachusetts, said a Facebook post last week from a nurse at a local hospital requesting crowdsourced N95 respirator masks prompted him to reach out and offer to make her a few alternative particulate masks using his 3-D printer.

But she needed enough for her team of 100 people.

Dozens of 3-D printed masks created by members of nonprofit community workshop and laboratory, Lowell Makes. (Photo courtesy of Lowell Makes.)

Rushton solicited the help of his fellow makers and they now have a cohort of 20 people running 14 3-D printers at a time, making 50 masks a day.

They’ve made around 300 masks so far.

The masks are printed out as three pieces, with a teardrop shape that fits over the nose and mouth, a front grill that secures a filter, and a faceplate. The makers hot-glue high-density rubber foam, which acts as a sealer around the face, and attach two elastic bands which wrap around the wearer’s ears.

Sam Burdett, president of Lowell Makes and an aerospace quality engineer by trade, said the 3-D printed masks can extend the supply of available N95 and surgical masks by cutting up the masks into four to six squares for use as the filters inside the 3-D printed masks.

Burdett said they’re also testing using vacuum bags and furnace filters inside the masks.

“It’s not a medical grade piece of equipment; it should be seen as a last-ditch effort,” Burdett said.

“We’re doing this as an initiative to help our community, but we want to make sure we are not doing more harm than good,” Burdett added.

To make sure the health care workers who use their masks are safe, Lowell Makes is working directly with hospitals to test and distribute the masks, rather than providing them directly to individuals.

All masks are being donated and are not for sale.

Rushton said the masks are being fit tested at local hospitals in the Boston area. The process involves putting on a hazmat suit and using aerosol sprays that taste bitter or sweet to make sure the sprays cannot penetrate the masks.

Amy Wilson, who is also involved in the project, said the makers are happy to step up and fill the PPE void, but they shouldn’t have to.

“I’m glad we have the skills and volunteers to help, but we shouldn’t have to be doing this,” Wilson said.

“There are people better equipped to fill this need, and there has to have been a systemic failure for us to reach this point where people in houses are printing masks for doctors and nurses and grocery workers and police officers,” Wilson added.

Workforce Standing By

Volunteers aren’t the only ones ready to get to work. Many people who lost jobs or income during the pandemic have skillsets needed to create equipment to combat Covid-19.

Seamstresses, tailors and costumers off Broadway formed a collective to quickly produce high volumes of personal protective equipment including gowns, coveralls, scrub caps and booties.

Alexandra Engelson co-founded the Skilled Laborers Brigade to pair makers from the fashion and entertainment industry with hospitals that need PPE on a quick turnaround.

Plastic components for crowdsourced alternative particulate masks are printed on a 3-D printer at nonprofit Lowell Makes. (Photo courtesy of Lowell Makes.)

In the week since it was formed, the collective worked with set designer John Creech to make 300 reusable face shields that were donated to a doctor who works for Kings County and Queens Presbyterian Hospitals in New York.

The face shield design was approved by a Harvard medical engineer and other doctors, Engelson said.

The collective also just received an order for 1,500 masks for firefighters in California, Engelson said.

While the collective includes both volunteers and workers-for-hire, Engelson said 90% of the group’s 500 members have become unemployed during the pandemic.

She said putting them to work making PPE can help stimulate the economy, even if they’re not making what they were before the pandemic.

Professional tailors, seamstresses and costumers are hired with their “kits,” Engelson said, which includes sewing machines and other materials and equipment needed to produce high volumes of garments. Many of them have at-home studios in spare rooms or basements.

The collective is working directly with hospital supply chain managers to produce exactly what they need.

“We’re the ‘Rosie the Riveters’ of this generation,” Engelson said.

“Most of us work in entertainment, usually our jobs are not life or death,” Engelson added. “Most of us are creative, garment construction people. We just want to see the safety of our country go back to normal.”

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