Redland Cotton making masks for Alabama hospitals
The coronavirus pandemic is stretching Alabama’s health care system to its limits, with unprecedented needs in level of care and supplies.

And several Alabama companies are stepping into the gap with a mixture of initiative and ingenuity.

When containment measures for the coronavirus shuttered eateries last week, they also affected Mobile’s Calagaz Printing, which specializes in commercial printing for national restaurant chains. Owner Joe Calagaz, who has been in the business for almost 30 years, told his 17 employees that he intended on keeping them on payroll by “cleaning and crosstraining.”

But Sales Director Michael Cuesta read a news story about the need for plastic medical face shields, and pitched an idea to General Manager Donnie Webb: Why not make these for local hospitals?

“My concern was that, on the surface, was this going to be a feelgood project that really wasn’t going to help hospitals,” Calagaz said.

They had materials overnighted in so that, by Monday, they had six prototypes to take to area hospitals. The design was based on an existing face shield which medical technicians told Calagaz was currently on back order – from the Wuhan District of China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

“The earliest they will get them will be July,” Calagaz said.

This weekend, Calagaz said he hopes to deliver an initial 6,000 face shields to Mobile Infirmary, Springhill Hospital, Providence Hospital, USA Health University Hospital, USA Health Children’s & Women’s Hospital. From there, he said, he could produce another 24,000, and eventually, ramp it up to 100,000 a month, if demand is there.

“I want to be able to do as much as I possibly can to assist everybody that needs these shields,” Calagaz said.

A coalition of technology companies, a UAB medical student and a nonprofit community makerspace called Red Mountain Makers are leading the effort in Birmingham to produce 3D-printed face shields and N95 face masks for healthcare workers.

Shirley Hicks, a founding member of Red Mountain Makers, said the group started collaborating last weekend to help ease the national medical supply shortage. The coalition is in the beginning stages of making prototypes of the face shields and masks and sending the samples to UAB for approval.

Once the group gets the OK from the hospital, Hicks said they could start making the equipment next week. Until then, Hicks said they need to assemble a production team. Forrest Satterfield, CEO of Satterfield Technologies, will be coordinating the production effort.

Individuals, companies or businesses that have access to 3D printers, laser cutters and other equipment can volunteer to help create face shields and masks by signing up through this Google document. Clinics, hospitals and other facilities wanting to request the face shields and masks can leave their emails in this Google document and a member will be in touch with you.

Not all volunteers have to be tech-savvy, Hicks said. The coalition also needs people who can help organize the Birmingham effort or distribute the materials to the hospitals, Hicks said.

“Essentially, we are organizing, very quickly, a dispersed production assembly line,” Hicks said. “So, this is a call to action for all of those who have access to a 3D printer that they have tried out the last couple years. This is a time to bring it out.”

Ethan Summers, commercial operations leader of a consumer electronic startup called Fledging, has been tasked with meeting UAB officials to get prototypes approved. He is familiar with how the medical supply chain works. Before joining the startup in June, Summers was part of UAB’s sourcing for two years and is friends with people who make the decisions at the hospital.

Because of his background, Summers was able to set up meetings with UAB to show staff the face shield and face mask prototypes. He said he is also talking to other healthcare providers as well.

“They are very eager to explore options to have backups,” Summers said “I think the interest has really ramped up across the board. I’m talking to a lot of healthcare organizations right now that are looking for any extra supply help they can get.”

Since he no longer works for UAB, Summers couldn’t give specifics about UAB’s medical supply during the coronavirus pandemic. But he attributed the national medical supply shortage to a rapid surge of demand due to the spread of the virus.

“In Alabama, 500 cases is obviously bad news, but when states like New York have so many cases, it really taxes the system,” Summers said.

Another big focus of the Birmingham group right is building capital. Those who don’t have the supplies or time to volunteer can donate to the cause. Summers said all the money will be going towards the face masks and shields.

John Olsen, a father of three and a UAB medical student, has turned his hobby of 3D printing into a lifesaving operation inside his garage. In a GoFundMe he started for the coalition on Sunday, Olsen said he is able to produce eight face shields daily, but with extra equipment he can bump the amount up to 50 daily. So far, Olsen has received $7,862 of his $15,000 goal.

“Imagine 50 nurses, doctors, first responders out there who could be significantly less likely to be incapacitated by COVID-19 with this equipment,” Olsen said in the GoFundMe.

Red Land Cotton, based in Lawrence County, normally makes bedding, bath towels and lounge wear from cotton grown on the family farm. But starting last Friday, founder Anna Brakefield said, the company began looking at how to contribute to the efforts of hospitals fighting the coronavirus.

Partnering with Heidi Elnore, a wedding dress designer, they thought about making masks to protect patients at local nursing homes and hospitals. A local nursing home, she said, estimates it needs between 600 to 700 masks.”

But the company also contacted UAB Hospital, which provided some specifications for masks they could use, Brakefield said.

“It evolved from, how can we make masks for the community to how can we serve an even broader area with this fabric that we have on hand?” she said. “Our primary concern was, would our fabric be effective or even helpful? I don’t want to make something that’s not going to be helpful.”

Starting tomorrow, the company will begin making two kinds of masks – a basic two-ply surgical mask that can be placed over the N-95 mask to extend its life; and a three-ply surgical mask with a pocket to insert a 3M air filter, providing another protective barrier.

“We got feedback from UAB about what would be helpful,” she said. “By no means is it ideal, but the hope is that, if they are in need, they can wash them and replace the filter.”

Brakefield said the company plans on producing about 1,000 masks it hopes to supply to the hospital starting this weekend. Red Land then plans on making a few hundred more a day to anyone needing masks.

Hospitals needing masks can send an email to [email protected]. Brakefield said the company is working to streamline the process for orders.

Originally published on AL.com here.

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