Volunteers rally to produce homemade face masks for coronavirus medical workers

A Brea T-shirt factory was humming Tuesday morning as 150 workers labored at sewing machines or boxed up finished product for shipping.

But AST Sportswear wasn’t making T-shirts, its usual ware. Instead, AST workers were making face masks for health professionals dealing with the novel coronavirus.

Company chief operating officer Abdul Rashid said he ordered his Brea factory to shift production from T-shirts to masks after seeing appeals for protective equipment on the news last week.

“I said, ‘Well, I’ve got a factory. I have a lot of capacity. Let’s make some masks,’ ” Rashid recalled.

Within days, the cavernous Imperial Boulevard factory had produced 10,000 multi-layered, cloth face masks. Relying on donations, the company has been shipping masks to hospitals, nursing homes and retirement centers in Southern California, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, Tennessee and Texas.

Thirty miles to the south, about 10 volunteers gathered Tuesday in a vacant lab to manufacture vinyl face shields for hospital workers.

In Long Beach, a company that uses recycled materials to make pouches and purses sewed more than 400 face masks after halting its normal business.

And a quilting class in Anaheim stitched 144 cloth masks for nurses at West Anaheim Medical Center after seeing a tutorial on Facebook teaching quilters how to make protective masks.

“One of my students called me and said, ‘I saw this on Facebook. What do you think?’ ” instructor Janet Salcido, 66, said. “I called my son, who is an ER nurse. … I said, ‘Could you use these?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely.’ “

  • Employees at AST Sportswear in Brea, CA switch from making T-shirts to making masks to meet the coronavirus demand on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. They produced 15,000 in one day but COO Abdul Rashid says he hopes that number increases as workers get more proficient in mask making.(Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Jill Brubaker shows one of the protective face shields she, along with friends and family members, are making in Mission Viejo, CA on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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  • Employees at AST Sportswear in Brea, CA switch from making T-shirts to making masks to meet the coronavirus demand on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Staff members at West Anaheim Medical Center in Anaheim wear hand-sewn face masks made by quilting instructor Janet Salcido of Anaheim. The masks are made of various pieces of leftover material and fit over their regular masks and have helped lift the spirits of the staff in the emergency department. (Photo courtesy Janet Salcido)

  • Mel Trudell and Kim Skjerven work an assembly line making protective face shields in Mission Viejo, CA on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Jill Brubaker, a nurse at Mission Hospital, organized the assembly line. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Employees at AST Sportswear in Brea, CA switch from making T-shirts to making masks to meet the coronavirus demand on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. They produced 15,000 in one day but COO Abdul Rashid says he hopes that number increases as workers get more proficient in mask making.(Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Jill Brubaker works an assembly line for protective face shields that she, along with friends and family members, are making in Mission Viejo, CA on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Employees at AST Sportswear in Brea, CA practice safe distancing and are required to wear masks at their Brea warehouse on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. The company switched from only making T-shirts to now only making masks to help the coronavirus demand. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • AST Sportswear COO Abdul Rashid has switch from making T-shirts to making masks to meet the coronavirus demand. He strolls the warehouse in Brea, CA on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. The company produced 15,000 masks in one day but Rashid says he hopes that number increases as workers get more proficient with the new mask-specific sewing machines. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Jose Zabbala, a supervisor with AST Sportswear in Brea, CA looks over the company’s T-shirt making machines that were stored in order to make room for mask-making sewing machines on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • T-shirt-making equipment at AST Sportswear in Brea, CA has been stored away in order to make room for mask-making sewing machines on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Employees at AST Sportswear in Brea, CA switch from making T-shirts to making masks to meet the coronavirus demand on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. They produced 15,000 in one day but COO Abdul Rashid says he hopes that number increases as workers get more proficient in mask making.(Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Bill Brubaker uses a guide to cut a piece of vinyl to make protective face shieds in Mission Viejo, CA on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Bill’s wife, Jill Brubaker, is a nurse at Mission Hospital. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Employees at AST Sportswear in Brea, CA switch from making T-shirts to making masks to meet the coronavirus demand on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. They produced 15,000 in one day but COO Abdul Rashid says he hopes that number increases as workers get more proficient in mask making.(Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • A pack of 25 masks are ready for shipment from AST Sportswear in Brea, CA on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. The company switched from making T-shirts to making masks to meet the coronavirus demand. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Employees at AST Sportswear in Brea, CA switch from making T-shirts to making masks to meet the coronavirus demand on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Patrick and Nick Brubaker, from left, put head straps on protective face shields in Mission Viejo, CA on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. The brother’s mom, Jill, organized the assembly line to make the shields. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Mel Trudell shows Patrick Brubaker how to finish a protective face shields in Mission Viejo, CA on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Patrick’s mom, Jill, organized the assembly line to make the shields. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Handmade face masks for staff members at West Anaheim Medical Center in Anaheim that were made by Janet Salcido of Anaheim. Salcido and her quilting students produced 144 cloth face masks for the hospital in the past week. Volunteers in Southern Californnia and around the globe are rallying to provide protective gear for medical workers dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo courtesy of Janet Salcido.)

  • Handmade face masks for staff members at West Anaheim Medical Center in Anaheim that were made by Janet Salcido of Anaheim. Salcido and her quilting students produced 144 cloth face masks for the hospital in the past week. Volunteers in Southern Californnia and around the globe are rallying to provide protective gear for medical workers dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo courtesy of Janet Salcido.)

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Throughout Southern California — indeed, around the globe — individuals and companies are taking it upon themselves to respond to an acute shortage of protective equipment for medical workers.

Like the Cajun Navy boat owners who volunteered to rescue Louisiana hurricane victims, sewing brigades throughout Southern California are taking needle and thread, double stick tape and staplers and practicing what their grandmothers would have done in the old days: Creating protective masks on their own.

Social media is filled with tweets and posts issuing a call for donated money, materials and time to help protect medical workers.

“Do we know of any seamstresses, quinceañera dressmakers, Tias que saben coser (aunts who can sew), in East L.A., Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, anywhere, that can help make some face masks?” Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, D-Los Angeles, tweeted Monday. “I’ll buy cloth & materials. We need to give to clinics, hospitals, first responders who are short of supplies.”

Others have launched collection drives for spare medical-grade N95 respirators and other protective equipment to donate to hospitals, where doctors and nurses are being forced to reuse or wash their masks. These range from collections at Fullerton’s St. Jude Medical Center and the Orange County Emergency Operations Center to national websites like DonatePPE.org, GetUsPPE.org and Mask Crusaders.

A team of students, staff and alumni at Tufts University, near Boston, jumped in to repair 6,000 old N95 masks with brittle straps donated to the Tufts Medical Center, according to the university.

“Our our team has retrofitted 621 masks and are waiting for more materials to arrive to fix the rest,” engineering instructor Brandon Stafford said. Stafford also is part of an effort to make a laser cut face shield, producing its first prototype Tuesday.

Gap Inc., parent company of The Gap, Old Navy, The Banana Republic and other clothing brands, tweeted Tuesday it is trying to link California hospitals with protective equipment providers while exploring the possibility of using excess manufacturing capacity to “make masks, gowns and scrubs for healthcare workers on the front lines.”

Even distillers have gotten into the act, making hand sanitizers instead of gin. Blinking Owl Distillery in Santa Ana and Surf City Still Works in Huntington Beach both have been enlisted to use their knowledge and equipment to make hand sanitizer.

Meanwhile, fabric and sewing sites around the globe like JoAnn.com, FreeSewing.org and Instructables.com posted mask-making videos, patterns and instructions.

Mask makers said they drew inspiration from Centers for Disease Control guidelines issued March 17 saying healthcare personnel might use homemade masks like bandannas and scarfs “as a last resort.”

But how effective are they really?

According to the Food and Drug Administration, surgical masks don’t provide complete protection from germs and other contaminants because of they’re loose and don’t filter very small, airborne particles transmitted by coughs or sneezes.

As for cloth masks, “their capability to protect healthcare professionals is unknown,” said CDC spokeswoman Arleen Porcell. “Homemade masks should ideally be used in combination with a face shield that covers the entire … face, but caution should be exercised when considering this option.”

An obstetrician-gynecologist interviewed by the Chicago Tribune put it this way: “Common sense would dictate that it’s probably better than nothing.”

What is known is medical professionals are worried, and some are eager to get homemade masks.

Students from the UC Berkeley School of Public Health published an online list of 141 U.S. hospitals accepting donations of homemade masks, including 40 in California.

“Kaiser has been so inundated with community members making handmade masks that they have established a central hub to handle donations across their system in California,” said Alexa Magyari, a Berkeley doctoral student working on the project.

Rashid said Kaiser nurses turned up at his factory Saturday and Sunday mornings requesting masks to use at their facilities.

AST Sportswear, which makes Bayside T-shirts and other casual wear, operates three factories in Southern California, including a Hawthorne plant that once belonged to bankrupt American Apparel.

At the company‘s 115,000-square-foot factory in Brea, workers spent two days stacking T-shirt machines on the second floor and ordered 100 special sewing machines to make masks.

By Tuesday, masked workers sat in rows 6 feet apart under a large American flag, sewing the all-cotton face masks together. The company’s website has a link for hospitals that need donated masks and a link for people to donate money to pay for their production. Rashid estimates they cost about $3 to $5 apiece.

A link to buy the masks is not yet operational, and Rashid said he is not offering them for sale to the public. Although his product isn’t medical grade, Rashid said the masks can be used by non-critical staff in hospitals or by patients.

“I’ve shipped out masks to medical facilities, nursing homes, retirement centers, acute centers, all on my own dime,” Rashid said. “We’re not marketing it in any way as a medical mask.

Jill Brubaker, 48, a nurse at Mission Hospital, was aghast when she saw videos showing people making face shields for hospital personnel because of the shortage.

Her brother and sister suggested they set up a website — ProtectOurProviders.org — to solicit donations and start manufacturing their own face shields, which protect the eyes and face from fluids.

Within days, she rounded up volunteers, cleaned out a vacant lab in a building her parents own and set up a vinyl mask assembly line. Her husband, who is out of work because of coronavirus, and her two sons, home early from college because of coronavirus, all pitched in.

The crew makes 700 to 800 shields a day, closing in Tuesday on 5,000 face shields. All are going to Brubaker’s hospital in Mission Viejo.

“Donations started to come in like crazy,” Brubaker said. “There’s a shortage of face shields and masks globally. … And yes, we are facing it locally.”

Because of the outbreak, Upcycle it Now co-founder Christina Johnson was forced to shut down her purse- and pack-making business in Long Beach, and her mother and aunt were forced to close their Long Beach alterations shop, Fit & Style.

And because Johnson’s sister is a nurse, “we were aware there were shortages of masks,” she said. Her mother suggested they start making masks for people who are unable to shelter in place, like grocery clerks, reducing demand for hospital supplies. But nurses have been requesting them, too.

Johnson’s company raised at least $15,000 through a GoFundMe site, making it possible to bring two employees back to work to help make masks. By Tuesday, Johnson was busy finishing 60 masks promised to a nurse that day. She redesigned the masks to create a pouch where nurses can slip in an extra filter.

“We didn’t want to charge anyone,” said Johnson, the chugging of a Juki Automatic sewing machine in the background. “This isn’t the time for that. This is the time to rally together and help each other out.”

— SCNG staff photographer Mindy Schauer and staff writer Roxana Kopetman contributed to this report.

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