Southeast Missouri State University student publication

Community members assist in need of PPE for local hospitals

Thursday, April 2, 2020
Southeast senior Jennifer Vance said she plans to sew about 20 more masks using the materials that she already has in her house, however, elastic has become hard to find in stores.
Photo submitted by Jennifer Vance

Medical facilities across the United States are experiencing a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including local hospitals in Cape Girardeau.

On March 23, SoutheastHEALTH posted on Facebook asking members of the community to “get crafty” and make face masks for healthcare providers as they plan for COVID-19, and the Southeast community stepped up to the task.

Ally Holland, associate director of development for annual and special gifts for the University Foundation, was inspired to start sewing the face masks because of her mom who works at the Poplar Bluff Regional Medical Center.

“When I heard about the shortage, it just really hit close to home for me because we’re thinking about these people on the front lines risking their health to help others,” Holland said. “And to know that they didn’t have something crucial, that just really inspired me to try and take action.”

Andy Bruening, a Southeast theatre student who has a focus on design and technology, said on average, he sews for three to five hours per day for his work as a costume technician. He said he had extra materials around his house and decided to sew face masks to donate to the local hospitals.

“As a nation, we’re facing such a serious dilemma. We just don’t have enough supplies to keep everyone safe and that is just terrifying,” Bruening said of the PPE shortage. “I want to use what skills I have to help people.”

Jennifer Vance, a family and consumer science education student, said she’s found creating the masks helps her be more productive in her free time.

“I don’t really have anything else to do right now other than working on my own personal sewing projects, so I might as well do something that’s helping those in need,” Vance said.

Vance said at first it took her about 15 minutes to finish one mask.

“Since I’m making so many, I’ve made it almost like a game for myself to see how fast I can do it,” Vance said. “I’ve gotten to where I can make one in about seven to eight minutes.”

Utilizing university technology

Another way the Southeast community is producing equipment is through science. Brad Deken, chairperson of the department of engineering and technology, said faculty and staff at the university have been using the laser-cutting technology in the Seabaugh Polytech building as well as 3-D printers to create face shields for the local hospitals.

“We have people at the university that are helping; I have several staff members in my department that are volunteering to go in and work on this,” Deken said. “Fortunately, you can still maintain your distance while working on it.”

Deken said part of the job is to monitor the machines, especially the 3-D printers, as they work to make sure everything runs smoothly.

“I know a couple of people taking those printers home just so we can keep track of it for longer periods of time instead of just the eight hours of a normal work day,” Deken said.

Deken said he was inspired to start creating the face shields by members of the manufacturing industry who are producing face shields and masks during the pandemic.

“A lot of our programs are to train students to go into manufacturing so a lot of our alumni have continued to work throughout all of this, and it really got me thinking how critical they are to this situation,” Deken said.

When it comes to making face shields, Deken said production times vary between techniques. To construct a shield using the 3-D printer, he said it takes at least one hour.

“It’s very time consuming,” Deken said. “We took a look at the design and realized it was mostly two dimensional, so we realized that was probably something we could use as a backup,”

Deken and other members of the department explored multiple possible ways to create the shields before deciding to use the laser cutter to cut them out of plastic sheets. With this new process, Deken said they are currently producing between 200 and 300 shields per day.

Overcoming challenges

As a student teacher, Vance teaches sewing classes to her high school students.

“So I know how to use a sewing machine and I’ve got lots of extra fabric and I actually had the perfect amount of elastic,” said Vance.

Holland said she knew Vance, one of her students, was also sewing the masks and asked her for help to follow the pattern.

“The part with the elastic was tricky for me, so Jen took a video of her doing just that,” Holland said. “I watched it a few times, and the videos were really helpful.”

In addition to correctly sewing the mask together, the fabric used is also a very important aspect of making sure the mask will protect those wearing it. SoutheastHEALTH’s Facebook post instructed volunteers to use “tightly-woven cotton fabric” when creating the masks.

Bruening said ensuring the masks have been disinfected is also an important step.

“It’s not enough just to make the masks; make sure that they’re disinfected, first and foremost, before you send them off,” Bruening said. “Nothing can be worse than a batch of infected masks going to a bunch of healthcare providers.”

When it comes to creating the face shields, the shield has to be very round in order to fully protect the wearer’s face. This presents challenges to production because Deken said if the shield is cut directly out of the plastic, it wastes a lot of material. In order to conserve material, Deken said they are cutting the plastic straight, then heating it and putting the bend in it manually.

“We’re actually spacing them an inch apart on the sheet so that we have very little waste,” Deken said.

Deken estimates that they have enough supplies to make about 700 more shields using this method, but he said they will run out fairly quickly.

“Fortunately or unfortunately we are not the only ones doing this, there are lots of other people doing a similar process so we’re finding it hard to find suppliers,” Deken said.

Giving back to the community

SoutheastHEALTH has a donation box open at its front door, but it is not the only hospital looking for donations of reusable face masks.

“I posted on Facebook that I was making them and a girl I went to high school with said that she works at a hospital and she asked for some,” Vance said. “I’m happy to give them to anybody that needs them.”

While hospitals are in need of more PPE, there are other places that have been affected by the shortage as well.

“Places like the senior center in Cape Girardeau also put on their Facebook that they need supplies as well,” Holland said. “There are so many places that deal with people who are at risk that don’t have the supplies that they need, so I think there’s a real need for everyone to band together and do something if they can.”

While Vance said the masks aren’t too advanced for beginner sewers, there are ways to help the effort without sewing anything.

“It’s not difficult, if you wanted to you could probably hand sew them, but even just cutting fabric or purchasing supplies [helps],” Vance said. ”If you’re not making them, donating the fabric or elastic is super helpful.”

For Holland, sewing these face masks is a small thing she can do, but when more people join the effort, they can make a big difference.

“It’s easy to feel really overwhelmed and helpless when we’re not supposed to leave our homes, and I know I’ve felt like that a lot. But we can do little things that maybe don’t cost us much that really do make a big difference if everyone works together,” Holland said.