AMHERST, Mass. (UMass.edu) – As health care workers battle the COVID-19 pandemic on the front lines, they currently face a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), including face coverings of all types. When Kristin Jensen and Felicia Malachite of the Department of Theater’s costume shop at UMass Amherst learned that masks were being shifted from facilities such as veterinary clinics to human hospitals to help address the scarcity, they decided to make cloth masks for animal doctors and other non-emergency health care workers so they can extend the life of their existing PPE supplies.
The pair have so far produced nearly 200 masks, and hope to continue to make at least 100 per week to keep getting them where they are needed. In addition to local veterinary hospitals, the masks have been distributed to the Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst, Amherst Community Connections, Royal Health Group nursing homes, the Western Mass Food Bank, Pioneer Valley Hospice and Palliative Care, the Amherst Survival Center, individual nurses and their colleagues, and various on-site UMass employees who come to campus.
“Kristin and Felicia run our extraordinary costume shop, and this undertaking of theirs – not just crafting the masks but personally arranging for their distribution – is totally in keeping with their dedication, kindness, professionalism and community orientation. And courage,” says Harley Erdman, chair of the Department of Theater, which is housed in the College of Humanities and Fine Arts. “It is why our costume shop is a place all our students want to work. They are also master technicians in everything they make: they pour tender loving care into everything.”
With all theater performances for the semester canceled, Jensen and Malachite gathered materials on hand in the department and set to work to create the handmade masks from their own homes when the campus shifted to remote learning for the remainder of the academic year.
“Felicia and I first started making masks on our own during Spring Break week, the third week of March, when the nationwide need of face masks and other PPE was becoming so apparent,” says Jensen. “It just made sense to do this as we have the skills and the materials. By the end of that week, it was clear that this work needed to continue as the need was growing and would continue to grow, and thus, the group project began.”
With the assistance of three graduate students, the designers wanted to get the masks out to the community as effectively and efficiently as possible. They asked one of the grad students, Mikayla Reid, to reach out and connect with a number of organizations to assess their needs and identify to whom they could start distributing the masks.
“There were, of course, some immediate takers,” Jensen says, “and then later that first week, some who had originally indicated they were OK and didn’t need any, wrote back asking if we could get some to them.”
Jensen points out that the masks they are creating are not intended to replace N95 masks, but that they are still of great value in a healthcare setting for use by patients and those employees who ordinarily would not wear a mask. This allows the facilities to reserve the coveted N95s for the doctors and nurses on the front lines. Jensen says their masks are also in high demand by organizations that have employees and volunteers interacting with the public.
“We have been making both fitted masks and pleated masks,” Malachite says. “Our masks are made of pre-washed tightly woven 100% cotton fabrics, and include an opening for the user to insert a filter if they choose.
“We aim to honor requests of recipients,” Malachite explains. “Most include a soft strip of wire enclosed within the top edge seam that can be shaped across the bridge of the nose for a closer fit. We have been using either elastic or fabric ties, but we have learned that most groups prefer fabric ties as they are more comfortable for someone wearing a mask over an extended period of time. Some have requested a third layer of fabric and several have asked that we not launder them after construction, as they would prefer to sterilize them on location.”
“Everyone has been so thankful, and it feels good to be able to serve the community in this way, “Jensen says. “We will continue this effort for as long as there is a need. We foresee that there will be regular deliveries to a few of our recipients.”