To help hospitals survive a dangerous shortage, a Mukilteo furniture maker has converted its tables and machines to sew lightweight surgical masks, at a rate of thousands per day.
Kaas Tailored is leading what Providence Medical Group, based in Washington state, calls the 100 Million Mask Challenge. The technical specifications are meant to be downloaded by nimble enterprises nationwide, at www.kaastailored.com.
It’s an example of how necessity spawns local innovation. Scientists from the University of Washington started tests when federal response lagged, while health-care workers are resorting to procuring their own protective gear.
The Mukilteo company’s initial batch was produced by workers who stayed late Friday. Co-owner Jeff Kaas gathered them for a pep talk: “You’ve just saved a bunch of lives,” that prompted applause.
“This is such an uncertain time for people, and that sense of anxiety is compounded by a sense of helplessness,” said Jennifer Bayerdorfer, Providence chief quality officer, who’s been monitoring the factory. “Those who are able to pitch in begin to feel a sense of hope, which is hard to come by at a time like this.”
President Donald Trump himself suggested for several days that states take initiative, and as of Saturday had not yet carried out the Defense Production Act to order conversion of factories to make medical supplies, though some are doing so. “The private sector is really in sixth gear,” Trump said Saturday, before announcing that the Hanes undergarment company, which owns factories in Central America, will produce millions of masks.
Trump issued an emergency declaration Sunday for Washington state. 3M said it would ship 500,000 respirator masks to New York and Seattle by Monday, and electric-car entrepreneur Elon Musk sent 50,000 to the UW.
Providence officials had been on edge since January about the approaching epidemic, then realized in March they needed new supply sources. Trucks delivering personal protective equipment (PPE) were arriving just in the nick of time.
“Any given day, our hospitals are on the verge of running out of PPE,” said Melissa Tizon, Providence vice president for communications. “We need to have a backup plan in case the next shipment doesn’t come.”
Washington’s state warehouse is so depleted, state epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist told The Seattle Times on Friday that, “We have health care workers wearing bandannas at this point.” A third shipment from the National Strategic Stockpile could arrive within days, while the Washington state government is calling for bids.
Gloves, white N95 respirator masks, cloth masks, hand sanitizer and testing kits are all scarce at times in Washington state, amid 1,793 confirmed cases, 94 deaths, and heightened precautions from emergency rooms to grocery stores.
To guide new grassroots suppliers, Providence reverse-engineered its blue, lightweight surgical mask. Fabric can be taken from surplus cloth at a Lacey warehouse, of the type normally wrapped around surgical instruments, since elective surgeries are postponed anyway.
Jeff Kaas, who with his wife, Stacey, owns the 200-colleague furniture company, texted: “I have a factory, you have a need. Let me know,” to Dr. Joanne Roberts, Providence chief value officer. A day later, they developed a prototype. Kaas said he sent details to a friend in The Netherlands, who made 800 masks and a video overnight.
“That enabled me on Friday, with my team, to make 1,100 masks, and today, make 4,000,” Kaas said Saturday.
Kaas said that while large organizations might need three to five weeks to react, “We’re used to going quick, otherwise we’re dead. If you went into my factory, it will be really hard to believe we make furniture.”
The Mukilteo company also is making clear, vinyl face shields for medical personnel in close contact with infected persons.
Providence alone estimates it needs 10 million units for 51 medical centers in seven states, plus neighborhood clinics, and the United States as a whole may consume 1 billion masks during the course of the outbreak.
Tizon anticipates the challenge will grow quickly, so Providence is seeking a nonprofit to manage the incoming masks.
A Seattle travel bag company, Tom Bihn, created prototype masks late Saturday at its Sodo factory, using the specs downloaded from Kaas.
CEO Darcy Gray learned about the 10 Million Mask Challenge from a reporter Saturday night, after she contacted Seattle Times columnist Naomi Ishisaka, whose Saturday column began, “It has gotten so bad that hospital workers are now making their own masks.”
By 9:25 p.m., Gray sent photos of an executive sewing. She hoped to send 80 cotton masks by Monday to a backpack customer in Illinois, who reported having to reuse facial masks in a depleted emergency room there. “We could confidently manufacture at least 10,000 of these masks per day for roughly $0.60 per mask,” Gray wrote.
On Sunday, Western Washington residents of Chinese ancestry prepared to deliver boxes of masks to Swedish Medical Center at its Cherry Hill campus in Seattle, then EvergreenHealth in Kirkland, which treated the nation’s first fatal coronavirus cases.
They’ve given or pledged $9,000 to date, which will cover 3,350 surgical masks and 850 of the thicker, white KN-95 masks to be delivered Sunday, plus a follow-up order due this week. Those will be given to Kaiser Permanente and UW Medical Center, said a coordinator, Xiandi Chen of Bellevue.
Some of the 92 donors previously sent relief funds to Wuhan, China, when the outbreak began there, she said. In part, donors hope their efforts in Washington state avert ethnic scapegoating of Chinese people, that has some community members worried, she said.
“It’s not just one country,” Chen said. “It’s a whole global community.”