CORONAVIRUS

Mask production: Eastern Iowans spearheading face protection projects

Deb Siggins hangs her home-sewn masks on a tree outside her home in rural Lisbon this past Thursday. Siggins has made mo
Deb Siggins hangs her home-sewn masks on a tree outside her home in rural Lisbon this past Thursday. Siggins has made more than 600 masks and regularly hangs them outside her home, where people can stop by and pick up one or several. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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Scissors are snipping and sewing machines are whirring across the generations, as Eastern Iowa stitchers and organizers are churning out hundreds of free face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. And several teenagers in Robins and Cedar Rapids have been assembling face shields for workers in the medical field, as well.

Here are their stories.

Giving Tree, Lisbon

Deb Siggins has found a novel non-contact way to distribute the face masks she’s making in her rural Lisbon home. She’s hanging them up on a “giving tree” in her front yard, so passers-by can stop and take what they need.

The evergreen. which normally sports Christmas lights in the winter, is springing to life with a colorful array that caught the eye of “Good Morning America.” Someone sent the ABC-TV program a photo of her tree, and the show called her for an interview and posted her story online April 20.

Siggins, 55, isn’t divulging her address, since she said it’s all she can do to keep up with the demand from folks in Lisbon and Mount Vernon. So far, she’s made more than 600 masks, using more than 100 yards of fabric to yield five or six masks per yard, along with 1,200 elastic hair bands to hook the masks over the wearer’s ears. Each mask has a pocket, so users can slip in a filter, such as a piece of .3 micron HEPA-certified vacuum cleaner bag filters.

Siggins has been making the cloth masks since about mid- to late March, and isn’t letting up any time soon.

“My theory is, I’ll keep doing them until the demand’s not there,” she said. So far, the masks disappear about as quickly as she can hang them up.

She works in patient service registration at the UnityPoint Clinic in Mount Vernon. So when UnityPoint-St. Luke’s Hospital requested homemade cloth masks to cover the N95 filters used by health care professionals, she jumped into action, downloading the Olson Mask pattern from unitypoint.org/cedarrapids/sewing-surgical-masks.aspx

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A quilter, she had good-quality cotton fabric on hand, and once that was gone, supplemented her supply from local fabric stores. Since hair ties are becoming increasingly hard to find, her daughter snatches them up whenever she finds them.

Siggins is footing the bill, and even though the masks are free for the taking, some people have been leaving money, which she uses to buy more supplies.

She’s also made masks for family and friends, and her son, who is the Lisbon fire chief, took some for the fire and ambulance departments.

“I’m just doing this because I’m a giver and not a taker,” she said. “I think that this is a gift that God’s given me to share with others and use my sewing.”

Costumer, St. Donatus

Miriam (Mim) Hoffman, 65, is certain she came down with COVID-19 in February, before the virus hit full-bore in Iowa.

She wasn’t tested, but after working on costume crews for touring plays, she suffered from “really heavy fatigue, labored breathing and a weird sore throat.” At the time, she attributed it to her allergies that flare up in the winter, but in hindsight, she realized those are common symptoms caused by the novel coronavirus.

Once she recovered, she put to use the sewing, pattern-making, organizing and supervising skills honed over 40 years of working in the theatrical costuming world from coast to coast, including four years with “Wicked” in Chicago and another four and a half years with the first national tour of the Broadway blockbuster musical.

Now is her chance to use all of that experience for good, to make cloth covers to extend the life of N95 masks. She set her wheels in motion in early March, when she found out the Iowa Veterans Home needed cloth masks.

As word spread, she received requests for 14,000 masks “right off the bat,” and by today, expects to have another 12,225 requests.

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She’s currently supplying 200 masks per week to the Veterans Home, and 500 masks per week to MercyOne in Sioux City, which is treating patients from Smithfield Foods, and Great River Medical Center in West Burlington, treating Southeast Iowa’s infected food plant workers. She’s also canvassing the nursing homes in Iowa’s eight “hot spot” areas.

“As a volunteer gig, it’s very intense,” she said. “I start on the phone and email about 7:30 in the morning, and I usually don’t finish up until 10 o’clock at night — a pretty steady stream all day.”

It’s not a solitary endeavor. While she cuts and packages some masks, a group in Dubuque is working with her, as well. She also has 44 stitchers across the country and 11 people cutting locally.

“That’s how we can process so many masks,” she said.

She recently received 400 yards of fabric from the national MasksNOW Coalition and is receiving five 9-foot-by-12-foot drop cloths per week from two Home Depot stores, all of which should get her through four or five weeks of mask production. She’s buying elastic cord “dirt cheap” from a supplier who wishes to remain anonymous. But still, the costs have been staggering.

She has spent “thousands of dollars” out of pocket.

“I couldn’t stand by and let this happen,” she said. “And it couldn’t happen on the scale it needed to. The very first weekend we worked on this, three ladies and I rampaged my fabric stores in one of my barns ... that I’m developing as a learning center studio. We took every bolt of heavy cotton fabric out of there that we could, including the canvas that was supposed to be used for chair cushions on my patio.”

She has become the Iowa team leader for MasksNOW, and calls her group One Orange Masks. To help defray the mask-making costs, she has set up a GoFundMe account at gofundme.com/f/masksnowiowa or people can email her for information at mimhoffman17@gmail.com

The name comes from the One Orange Centre she’s spent a year and a half developing as a retreat and resource center for learning and healing. She grew up between Preston and Maquoketa, and had planned on returning to that area from Chicago when she retired.

Building upon her graduate degree in creativity studies, her work with people in the medical field and her own experiences recovering from a brain injury suffered in a 2007 car accident, her center is especially targeted for veterans who have suffered traumatic brain injuries. But programming also will be available for anyone wanting to attend workshops and commune with nature in the peace and quiet she’s found around the 6,000-square-foot Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired house, its barns, garden, woods and planned greenhouse on 25 scenic acres. She was set to open in June, but with the pandemic, that’s been pushed back.

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“At the end (of the virus threat), I think the retreat center will be great, because I think people will want to get away but won’t want to go anyplace that’s crowded,” she said. “They can be here and work in the garden and be outside, but not be on top of anybody and not be in a touristy situation. I scrapped my previous marketing plan. Now we’re having a post-pandemic marketing plan.”

Johnson County Senior Center

“Sewing for Seniors” creates a win-win for members of the Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center.

“It allows us to engage our members in a fun and impactful way at home, and allows us to keep as many older adults protected as we can,” said Jessica Simon, the center’s development specialist.

“We had the idea for the project April 2, and we pulled it together very, very quickly in anticipation of the CDC making the recommendation that the public should be wearing masks when making essential trips,” she said.

The plea for people to sew went out April 6, and 55 people responded. The Senior Center provides the pattern and needed materials, purchased locally. Volunteers from TRAIL of Johnson County pick up the finished masks and deliver them to the doorstep of area seniors, following physical distancing and no-contact protocols.

Since April 14, 647 masks have been delivered to seniors in Johnson County.

“We’re very excited,” Simon said. “We’re still getting requests and making deliveries.”

The center’s doors are closed at 28 S. Linn St. in Iowa City, but the mission to its 1,700 members continues.

“It’s an interesting time to be working with the senior center,” Simon said. “Our mission really hasn’t been touched, but how we’re executing our mission has been. Our mission is to enhance the quality of life by creating opportunities to support wellness, social connections, community engagement and lifelong learning for a diverse and growing older adult population.

“We still are laser-focused on executing our mission; we’re just pivoting to have to do a lot more of that online and virtually, whereas normally, a lot of our programming has taken place inside of our building,” she said.

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“We are exploring options and offering a lot more opportunities to connect on the phone, to connect with Zoom and to do some activities from afar, sending some things that you could access from home. We’ve done phone calls to all of our members, as well, just to touch base and offer to make social connections with other people that would like to receive regular phone calls — trying to facilitate as much of that as we can.”

While the Senior Center’s members were given the first opportunity to request a mask, any senior in Johnson County can request one by calling (319) 356-5220 during regular business hours.

The public also is invited to support the project by making donations online at <URL destination="https://www.icseniorcenterfriends.org/">icseniorcenterfriends.org

</URL>“Every $5 helps us get the material to make five masks that are delivered to senior citizens in the area,” Simon said. “So far, we have covered our expenses for the fabric, so we are very happy to be at that breaking point, due to the generous response of our community.” The project will run “as long as it’s needed,” she added. “We have no plans to slow down — our supply is meeting our demand, and we continue to reach out and make sure people have what they need. As long as the CDC is recommending that we wear masks, we’ll continue to try to offer free masks to area seniors.”

In response to the masks, the center is getting “a steady stream of thank-you calls and emails, which is really a blessing,” Simon said. “We all are working remotely right now and our building is closed for the time being, so that’s been a really nice link to feel like we’re doing something to ease the immediate impact.”

Marion troop 360 Eagle Scout project

With the deadline approaching for Connor Alt to carry out his Eagle Scout project by the time he turns 18 in May, the pandemic meant he had to change directions and start from scratch.

He originally planned to carry out a mass casualty drill for area emergency responders, but with the need for physical distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, he decided to further the cause by spearheading a mask-making project.

Even though his address is Cedar Rapids, Alt, 17, is a junior at Linn-Mar High School in Marion, a member of Boy Scout Troop 360 in Marion, and his father is a volunteer with the Robins Fire Department, which needed more reusable masks.

So about mid-March, Alt put his plan into action, recruiting five seamstresses among church and family friends to make the masks from materials he supplied. He downloaded the Olson Mask pattern from the UnityPoint-St. Luke’s Hospital website and set up a GoFundMe account, which brought in $145 to purchase fabric and supplies, including better scissors for cutting fabric.

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It took about 20 hours to cut and assemble the supply kits, which he left on the doorsteps of his stitchers. The fabric designs range from firefighter and EMS themes to University of Iowa and Iowa State University colors, along with some Avengers designs the firefighters can wear when working with children, to make their appearance less scary, Alt said.

His project is winding down. He’s distributed 50 reusable masks to area fire departments — 20 to Robins, 10 to West Bertram and 20 to Cedar Rapids — and has 20 more ready to give out.

He’s moved through the Scouting ranks for about 10 years, and will finish his Eagle award qualifications with time to spare.

He said he’s learned a lot from the mask-making experience.

“A large part was communication skills. Another was how to manage all the different pieces going into it,” he said, by working with the people helping him cut and sew, then delivering the final products, “trying to meet everyone’s wants and making it run as smooth as possible.”

All of his hard work on merit badges and projects through his years in Scouting will supplement what he’s learned in school. Attaining the Eagle rank will further prepare him to be “as well-rounded a person as possible,” he said, with practical lessons in personal finances, cooking, camping, communications and citizenship from “the community, all the way up to being a citizen of the world.”

Medical face shields, Robins & Cedar Rapids

Friends Michelle Hand of Robins and Laura Sundell of Cedar Rapids rounded up their teenagers — Avery and Katelyn Hand and Thomas and Sheila Sundell — to spend a mid-April weekend assembling 1,300 face shields for Think Safe.

Sundell has a friend who works for the company, located in Czech Village, that makes emergency readiness and response equipment, including automated external defibrillators for cardiac care, as well as personal protective equipment like face shields used by medical personnel.

“I’m trying to teach my kids that we’re all in this and we all have to help a little bit,” said Hand, a registered dental hygienist. She can see using the shields in her work to protect her from spatter and respiratory droplets.

The assembly process isn’t difficult, she noted. They picked up the supplies, and each household then assembled 650 face shields over the course of a weekend, put them in bags of 10 and packed 10 bags in boxes for shipping to the clients.

“It wasn’t bad at all,” Hand said, adding that the kids did most of the work.

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“You just peel off the little sticker on the green face shield part, then put the foam on there, where it would go on your forehead for comfort, then pack them up,” she said.

Hand was worried about the sanitation factor of making the masks on a carpeted floor with a cat nearby, but was told the health care workers peel off the green outside layer to make the shields clear, then sanitize them before use.

“I felt better about that,” she said.

The home workers are being paid $8 a box, which Hand said they will donate to a local food-relief effort.

Their work isn’t over. They plan to tackle another batch of face shields, and after she posted photos on Facebook, others reached out to ask how they can get involved; some in the health care field thanked them; and some of the dentists she works for asked if she could get them some shields for when they reopen.

“So it’s a tri-fold of people who responded,” she said. “I didn’t expect anything. I was just saying, ‘Hey, here’s what we’re doing in quarantine times.’ ”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

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