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COVID-19

COVID-19 draws apparel manufacturers into the surgical mask business

Marielle Segarra Mar 24, 2020
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A shortage of surgical face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic has some unexpected manufacturers stepping up. Scott Heins/Getty Images
COVID-19

COVID-19 draws apparel manufacturers into the surgical mask business

Marielle Segarra Mar 24, 2020
A shortage of surgical face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic has some unexpected manufacturers stepping up. Scott Heins/Getty Images
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Last week, Kathlin Argiro, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the chief product officer at Altress, a small dressmaking company, got a request from a local hospital in New York City. The hospital wanted to know whether Altress could make surgical masks.

Around the country, hospitals have been running dangerously low on medical supplies — in particular, protective gear like face masks. Doctors and nurses have been reusing the same mask for days and cobbling masks together out of office supplies.  

Argiro’s company pivoted. It’ll make 1,000 masks this week. 

“The masks themselves are actually pretty easy to make, especially for an experienced sewer, they’re really quite simple,” Argiro said.

Thing is, the Altress team usually works together. One person cuts, another sews, another assembles. But since they’re working from home, “every sewer is doing every part of the process,” Argiro said.

“So that is a huge challenge. It’s just the logistics of having to sew in this way is not efficient at all.”

Altress. Hanes. The fashion designer Christian Siriano. And lots of smaller apparel companies. They’re all getting into the mask-making business.

But surgical masks are not the ideal protection for health care workers treating COVID patients. They often need heavier duty masks, N95s, which are in very short supply right now and are harder to make. 

Manufacturers need special material, a type of polypropylene. And they need certain equipment, too.

“One of the key things is you need the machines to actually make them and one of the machines that can actually take polypropylene and convert it into the mask,” said Yogesh Bahl, a managing director at Alix Partners.

The companies that make N95s, like 3M and Honeywell, are ramping up production. It’s not yet clear whether they’ll be able to meet demand. 

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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