Volunteers for MakeHaven, a New Haven maker space, have sewn 402 face masks for nonprofits and the Yale New Haven Hospital. Regina Bohn has made almost half of them.
The 65-year-old Hamden-based professional seamstress gathered fabric decorated with strawberries, insects and Scooby Doo characters. She threw it all in the wash and decided she would make exactly as many face masks as that fabric could produce.
“I never thought in a disaster like this that a seamstress would be wanted,” Bohn said.
Bohn has run her own business, Regina’s Originals, since 1979. She teaches sewing and how to use sewing equipment at MakeHaven in exchange for a free membership at the Chapel Street “makerspace.”
MakeHaven is stepping up to provide New Haven hospitals, homeless shelters and food kitchens with personal protective equipment as suppliers scramble to catch up with demand during the Covid-19 public health crisis.
“My sincere, intense hope is that the normal supply chains come back online soon and we can help in other ways,” said MakeHaven Shop Manager Lior Trestman.
Trestman started researching reuse of N95 masks roughly two weeks ago. The former biomedical engineering major found that surgical masks could be made relatively easily and still block enough coronavirus-carrying respiratory droplets to help service providers.
“Soup kitchens and shelters have been using nothing, or a bandana. Having some kind of mask is far superior. If that means 50% of people are now getting infected a few days later, that’s #flattenthecurve,” Trestman said.
Of the multiple Covid-related projects MakeHaven has taken on, face masks need volunteers the most. Making each mask is a slow process and it is hard to make many at once.
In this context, where one volunteer might make 25 masks in a week, Bohn’s speed is just short of a miracle.
Bohn said that her secret is to do each step of the process to all of the masks at once, rather than making one mask at a time.
“That just comes from years of experience of sewing,” Bohn said.
The process is slow by Bohn’s standards, too. Cutting 360 pieces of elastic for the mask ear loops took her five hours, she said.
After finishing her last 114 masks on Tuesday morning, Bohn has returned to her own projects. Her main income for the season is usually prom dresses, and all of the proms have been canceled.
However, she has a project lined up to hem Bridgeport police uniforms, because the uniform company’s usual employees cannot come to work. She will be able to use her mask-making expertise to produce income as well – she said that customers have been calling with requests for handmade masks.
“I do want to say— these masks will not protect you from getting the disease. When you wear a mask, you tend not to touch your face. That’s a good thing right there,” she said.
MakeHaven has worked out a system so volunteers can make the masks without ever having to come into contact with another human being.
Around 45 people have signed up through MakeHaven’s website. They can then pick up sewing supplies or drop off completed masks at four designated locations. Three of the drop-offs are boxes on front porches in East Rock, Westville and Fair Haven. One is in MakeHaven’s Chapel Street lobby and is accessible to MakeHaven members only.
MakeHaven employee Kate Cebik runs this volunteer network.
Sometimes this means picking up masks directly from some volunteers like Bohn, who is not leaving the house because age puts her more at risk if she catches Covid-19.
This also means organizing check-ins on Wednesdays and more in-depth lessons on Saturdays, all over Google Hangouts.
She then washes the masks and hands them over to United Way to distribute. The growing list of recipients includes homelessness nonprofits New Reach and Columbus House, the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, Cornell Scott Hill Health Center and the Connecticut Hospice.
The total number of masks requested is 700 and climbing, Cebik said.
Cebik has been making some masks herself. Her daughter Eliza has been home with New Haven school closures and has been fetching materials from around the house for mask-making. This labor accounts for around 35 percent of that required to make the masks, the seven year-old estimated.
The sewing itself is not challenging, Cebik said. Finding elastic has been the biggest hurdle. Volunteers have been making do with ribbons, strips of fabric and other kinds of ties to keep the masks on.
“I would definitely put myself in the beginner category,” Cebik said. “If you are feeling nervous, just start cutting out squares of material.”
Even YNHH is taking homemade mask donations as a way to prolong the life of more effective masks.
The YNHH-approved design includes a pocket for a filter that the hospital will insert later. The main reason N95s and surgical masks degrade is because they get wet from the wearer’s mouth and nose, Trestman said. The cotton mask provides an extra layer that can take that moisture and then get cleaned in a washing machine.
“If you had asked the hospital two weeks ago, they probably would have signed an affidavit that they would not take anything except from a professional medical supplier. But then everyone around the planet started ordering everything,” Trestman said.
“If we want our healthcare providers to have any protection, we need to roll that back a little bit,” he said.
YNHH is accepting surgical masks and other personal protective equipment in original, unopened packaging as well. The hospital asks those who can donate to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Face shields, swabs, ventilators, Oh my!
Trestman has now moved onto projects less easily outsourced to those working at home. He is busy cranking out swabs for Covid-19 tests and face shields with a few others in the MakeHaven workshops. The face shields serve as another line of defense, particularly against the splatter of bodily fluids in hospital settings.
Neither the swabs nor the shields are as easy to wash as the cotton masks. The volunteers in the MakeHaven space wear protective equipment while they build. Trestman has also called in more oversight to make sure objects like the swabs—which will enter someone’s body—meet all necessary hygiene standards.
“I wanted to feel I had someone else to share the burden of responsibility,” Trestman said.
YNHH and Yale’s Coalition for Health Innovation in Medical Emergencies have found funding so MakeHaven can break even on the more expensive materials, like plastic and foam for the face shields. Trestman said that the supply chain has dried up even for these kinds of materials.
“If you are in industry or the academy, you go to McMaster-Carr to order supplies, and that package will be on your doorstep the next morning. They always have it in stock. Now there is a three-week wait time—things you have never seen before,” Trestman said.
Trestman is using a similar assembly-line method (pictured above) to Bohn to build the face shields. Yale’s Kavli Institute of Neuroscience cuts the plastic sheets for the masks. Then one volunteer cleans the plastic and another adds the foam piece, attaches the elastic band or cleans the complete mask.
Trestman said this is much faster than 3D printing masks, as some companies have done. He offered the example of an unnamed company that was able to 3D print 30 masks a day, while MakeHaven produces hundreds daily. As of Tuesday, Trestman and the other volunteers had made 1,200 face shields total.
Meanwhile, G Cafe is donating extra pastries to fuel the MakeHaven volunteers.
“This has been a powerful testament to how much people care and want to help,” Trestman said.
“I would prefer if we had a government that saw a pandemic coming and did something about it,” he added.
Cebik had a similar message. She described volunteers juggling jobs and childcare who still made time to sew masks.
“People are talking about people fighting over toilet paper and boxes of pasta, what I’m seeing is people coming together in really great ways,” Cebik said. “It really gives me hope.”