Before COVID-19, Merin Guthrie was cranking along in her role as founder and CEO of Kit, a custom women’s clothing business with a design studio in the Heights. Now, her business is still brisk, but Kit employees are making masks, not clothes, to protect healthcare workers from COVID-19 infection.
Guthrie had heard about the need for masks from media reports and through personal connections.
“When I had the feeling that we were going to shelter in place, I wondered if we could make masks,” Guthrie said.
The answer was a resounding yes.
The pattern that Guthrie’s seamstresses are using is a cloth mask that ties around the head, and features a pocket for a filter. Guthrie said research is ongoing for a safe, effective filter that could be used in the pocket to protect wearers. The masks are reusable, machine washable and worn over the N95 respirator and surgical masks for an extra degree of protection and to perhaps extend the life of a medical mask.
“We blew through all our fabric and then reached out to quilters for donations,” Guthrie said.
So far, Guthrie’s employees have made 1,600 masks, which have gone to medical facilities in New York, Washington D.C., Connecticut, Chicago and California. People can log needs on a Google Doc that Guthrie maintains.
Social distancing is maintained during production with two employees working from home and two in the office sewing 18 feet apart.
A week ago, Guthrie set up a GoFundMe page for donations to continue the work. While donations pay for mask materials and shipping, they also make it economically possible to keep her staff working on masks to meet a growing need.
Guthrie has been working at building a relationship with the medical community and has also partnered with TXRX Labs and Connect Community in the Gulfton area to increase mask production.
While Guthrie is leveraging her business, others are turning a hobby into an act of service.
Oak Forest resident Stephanie Glass-Taylor saw a social media post from an area pediatrician about having to reuse a mask. The engineer, and quilter, looked at the posted pattern and made some masks that day. She also talked to some nurses in her family.
“Before I did it I wanted to find out if it would be helpful,” Glass-Taylor said.
Through her quilting Facebook group, Glass-Taylor has learned about more opportunities to make masks.
She recently left some on her doorstep for LaTrice Ferguson, a physical therapist who also left her some fabric and another order.
“It’s wonderful to have support from the community,” Ferguson said. “It really touches me during this difficult time and reminds me of the importance of what I’m doing. I know that my community has my back and values their healthcare providers. We will get through this together.”
There are a number of online groups that have recently formed to share patterns and mask needs from communities. A local organization that has benefited from the volunteer mobilization is West Janisch Health Care Center, which provides rehabilitation, memory and skilled nursing care.
Beverly Mustafa with the center said staff members are wearing the cloth masks over their disposable masks.
Recently, challenges in mask-making have moved beyond manpower and expertise. Some of the mask materials, like the twill tape that creates the ties, is increasingly hard to come by, according to Guthrie.
And the scarcity might continue.
“The idea of getting a much more broad, community-wide use of masks outside of the healthcare setting is under very active discussion at the task force,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told CNN. “The CDC group is looking at that very carefully.”