As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shut down businesses and create shortages of protective gear among doctors and first responders, several local manufacturers have found themselves in an unexpected new role: mask makers.
N95 masks and other medical-grade personal protective equipment, or PPE, are increasingly hard to find, and that has prompted a growing interest in alternatives such as cloth fabric masks, which are easier to make and can be reused.
Vancouver retailer Sweet Spot Skirts jumped into the mask business last month in partnership with the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce and veterinary clinic chain WellHaven Pet Health, which is headquartered in Vancouver.
“We want to spare PPEs so human health care professionals can have them,” said WellHaven CEO John Bork.
Veterinarians and other pet clinic staff are designated “essential” and are allowed to keep working under Washington’s stay-at-home order, but just like human doctors, vets need masks and other protective gear to do their jobs.
Under ordinary circumstances, Bork said, they would use N95-grade masks or something similar — essentially the same gear as human hospital staff. But the coronavirus outbreak is prompting a need to think in terms of prioritization.
Dogs and cats can’t get infected by COVID-19, according to Bork and WellHaven chief medical officer Bob Lester, and the odds of a pet transmitting viral particles on their fur are low.
That means that in a pinch, veterinary staff can get by without the top-grade masks that human doctors need, as long as they can find some sort of replacement. If WellHaven can switch to fabric masks and other gear, Bork said, it frees the company up to donate all of its regular medical-grade mask stock.
Bork contacted the chamber of commerce to try to seek out mask suppliers. The chamber put him in touch with Sweet Spot Skirts owner Stephanie Lynn, and Bork asked if she’d be interested in a partnership.
The timing worked out, Lynn said, because the pandemic had brought an abrupt halt to what had been a record-high sales season for Sweet Spot.
One of the company’s bike skirt products has become popular nationwide, Lynn said, and she had been planning for the company to have a presence at multiple biking events in the coming months — until COVID-19 canceled them all.
Online sales have continued, she said, but not at the record-breaking rate they were at in February. Sweet Spot’s Vancouver retail shop also had to close down under the stay-at-home order, she said, but the company’s manufacturing room is still running to fulfill online orders (now with sewing machines spaced 10 feet apart).
Lynn said she designed a prototype mask and cap that same day Bork approached her; within a day, WellHaven placed an initial order of 500 masks that it would distribute to all of its clinics.
Sweet Spot was able to deliver half of the first order in one week, Lynn said. Like all of Sweet Spot’s products, the masks are all manufactured in-house.
“It was just really awesome to be able to help WellHaven out,” she said.
Bork said WellHaven wants to continue the partnership with a donation drive, held in conjunction with the chamber, to raise funding for more masks that can be distributed to other local veterinary clinics that aren’t part of WellHaven, as well as other medical staff who might need them.
“We are going to do this until the supply is back,” he said.
The chamber has added a page to its website at vancouverusa.com/store where users can donate funding for further mask production, and it’s begun to bring other companies into the partnership to try to increase the mask-making capacity.
Other mask makers
Sweet Spot isn’t the only local company that has turned to mask-making in past few weeks. Multiple Vancouver-area companies have begun selling fabric masks and other protective gear, both to the medical industry and individuals.
Ryan Moor is the chief vision officer of screen printing company Ryonet, which manufactures screen-printing equipment, as well as its subsidiary, Allmade, which specializes in eco-friendly T-shirts. Both brands have shifted to manufacturing masks and other protective gear. Ryonet has also joined the chamber’s mask-making partnership.
Protective gear products have quickly become a lifeline for the business, Moor said, with masks now accounting for about 50 percent of what Allmade produces.
“Our (T-shirt) industry has gone down probably 80 percent,” he said.
The masks aren’t medical-grade, although they do have an internal layer of anti-microbial material, and Moor said he’s heard from medical staff who have used them as a secondary cover on top of their N95 masks, in order to try to prolong the life of the full-grade masks.
Another Vancouver manufacturer, the Last US Bag Company, has added a personal protective equipment page to its website listing face shields, secondary masks and reusable shoe covers.
Even some companies that don’t normally manufacture cloth products have begun to pivot toward protective gear. Cheyenne Manufacturing in Hazel Dell, which primarily makes fiberglass storage cases for water safety equipment, announced this week that it would begin making and selling masks, with a matching donation drive for first responders.
“It’s totally outside of what we were doing,” said general manager Kim Silagy-Ruestig.
Silagy-Ruestig said she makes quilts as a craft hobby, and some of her friends began asking if she could make masks, so she set up a small workstation in one of the company’s spare offices. A FedEx representative happened to come through and saw the masks, she said, and immediately asked if she could start making more for local drivers.
Fast forward a few days, and the company has thousands of masks on order, she said. The side office has been converted into an impromptu assembly line, and Silagy-Ruestig said she and a team of about six other people will start working to fulfill those orders over the weekend.