Island painters, carpenters, sheetrockers, and woodworkers are being called on to donate their 3M N95 dust masks to healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic.
According to Island painter Amy Upton, the commonly used masks that could be in boxes in work trucks, garages, and workshops can be used by nurses and doctors who are at the greatest risk of infection.
The Minnesota-based industry and worker safety corporation said on its website that it has doubled its output of N95 masks to an annual rate of over 1.1 billion per year, or nearly 100 million per month, since the start of the outbreak of coronavirus, which is easily transmittable and causes the disease COVID-19.
According to the website, 3M has advocated for the production stream of masks to be oriented toward healthcare workers.
Closer to the Vineyard, the American Blanket Company of Fall River has a fleece mask on the market Oak Bluffs woodworker Rob Gatchell has ordered to protect himself and his family. He hopes the Vineyard medical community will not overlook the company as a potential resource.
Gatchell said he received an ad from that company “only because I’d bought a blanket from them a couple of years ago for my wife.”
Rick Lotuff, founder of American Blanket Company, said they are ramping up production on their polyester fleece masks. “The lead time is a few days on a purchase,” he said.
Lotuff said the masks his company sells are roughly five times more microbial protection than a naked face and can be machine washed.
Lotuff said he felt fortunate to be able to keep his employees working in the face of so many layoffs elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the quest to find more masks is ongoing. Upton said any masks that exist on-Island should also be put toward supporting the dedicated medical staff that are attempting to keep the community healthy.
“All contractors on the Island most likely have a box of these masks lying around somewhere, and I bet many of them aren’t even being used,” Upton said. “We need to put out an all points bulletin on these masks.”
A number of hardware stores on the Island are considering a mask drive where folks can bring their masks to one or two centralized locations. Upton said she isn’t sure whether the hospital will be able to accept boxes of masks that have already been opened, but said she is willing to process the masks by putting them in her dryer, repackaging them, and then providing them to emergency personnel and first responders, or elderly people who are immunocompromised.
“We need to protect our frontline workers; this is incredibly important,” Upton said, and went on to add that she is working on creating a streamlined contact thread for various Island contractors in order to coordinate a supply chain that would go directly to Island medical staff.
“This is a call to all contractors, we need your help,” Upton said.
Hospital CEO Denise Schepici confirmed that they are working with local contractors to coordinate the collection of the masks, but that they had not yet established a collection site.
Laura Silber is a woodworker on the Vineyard who often uses the 3M N95 masks to avoid inhaling harmful wood particulates. She said many people that aren’t in the contracting sphere could also have these masks lying around for outdoor tasks.
“I think everybody needs to look around for these masks; you might not even know you have them,” Silber said.
She also said one of the problems is that people don’t know what these types of masks look like, so they don’t know what to look for in their workshops or households.
“We are all aware of the shortages. Cape Cod and Boston are already reaching out to the communities to ask for these masks,” Silber said. “We should feel obligated to get these masks to where they are needed most — at our Island healthcare places.”
Jennifer Ingraham, owner of Island Color Center in Vineyard Haven, said her spring order of N95 masks contained 960 individual masks, and she has since sold out.
“My supplier is associated with Ace Hardware, and they have 195,000 masks on order. They told me they weren’t going to be available because they are providing them to healthcare workers,” Ingraham said. “Things are getting crazy.”
According to Ingraham, a friend of hers who works at the hospital reached out to her and asked her if she had any N95 masks available for the hospital to purchase. At that time, Ingraham had already sold out of the masks, but was able to sell 14 full-face N95 respirators with replacement filters to the hospital at a discounted price.
“They really need these masks,” she said.
Jesse Steere, owner of Shirley’s Hardware, said he is willing to collect masks for a mask drive at his Vineyard Haven location.
John Montes Jr., owner of Edgartown Hardware, also said he would be willing to be a collection point for the masks.
“We realize it would be great to give them to the medical personnel and first responders. But we are going to have to guard them, because people are going nuts over these things,” Steere said. “Right now, the Island has cases, but this could blow up at anytime.”
But according to Steere, contractors need these masks to protect their own health, and it might be difficult to get some to donate.
Steere said he has hundreds of vacuum bags that are HEPA certified, and he said they could be used as makeshift masks. “These bags have four layers of filtration. The medical community probably won’t be able to use them, but we could give them to the elderly.”
Steere said he hopes someone with a sewing machine and sewing skills could fashion makeshift masks and make them available to the public.
In a press conference Saturday, Gov. Charlie Baker said “we need more gear,” when asked about how the commonwealth was doing with its supply of masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). He said the state has reached out to a number of manufacturers in order to get more masks for healthcare workers.