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How Designers Can Help Meet the Mask and Medical Supplies Shortage Right Now

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Fashion designers have likely been feeling pretty helpless in the face of COVID-19. Their jobs are collaborative by nature—i.e., not exactly suited to our current #WFH isolation—and in the face of a global pandemic, they probably didn’t think they could offer much help. That’s changed in the past week: The industry has collectively reacted to the shocking lack of medical supplies in U.S. hospitals, particularly masks, by making their own. On Friday, I published a story that documented the extreme conditions nurses like my twin sister, Liz, are facing, and received dozens of emails and Instagram messages from designers, manufacturers, and complete strangers offering their services.

Around the time my story was published, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also put out an official call to the apparel industry to start making masks and gowns. Christian Siriano was among the first to respond, writing: “I have a full sewing team still on staff working from home that can help.” Brandon Maxwell and Rosie Assoulin have also been researching the best way to make masks and gowns. At first glance, these items seem like they should be pretty easy to make: If you have a needle, thread, and the right materials, shouldn’t we all be getting to work?

Figuring out what qualifies as the “right” materials was the missing link. After days of research, Siriano is now making washable masks for hospital personnel—not doctors or nurses. His team confirmed these masks are not medical grade, and are recommended for lower-risk staff and administrators who are not in contact with COVID-19 patients. Jonathan Cohen told me he couldn’t find substantive information about medical-grade materials he should use, and since he doesn’t have his own factory, he does not have the connections or capital to place massive orders for a supply of medical fabric. There’s also the issue of FDA regulations and sterility; masks typically arrive at hospitals with a stack of paperwork and certifications. Brittany Howard, who owns the Portland Garment Factory, has been making surgical masks using “a polypropylene spun-bound nonwoven material,” which she has to order in huge volumes and describes as “medical grade, but not FDA-approved.” They sit somewhere in between those proper masks and the DIY varieties we’re seeing on Instagram.

Understandably, it’s all creating a bit of confusion. Designers want to help and have piles of unused fabric in their studios, but my research—and my conversations with New York doctors and nurses—suggests health care workers won’t have much use for DIY fabric masks. As Siriano likely learned, a fabric mask can block out fluids, but it cannot protect you from airborne particles or viruses, particularly one as contagious as the coronavirus. In fact, even a proper, FDA-approved surgical mask can’t do that: The CDC clearly states that a surgical mask “is not considered respiratory protection.” (Hospitals are still in desperate need of surgical masks, though: Last night, my sister told me her NICU had completely run out, and they need these masks for non-coronavirus-related procedures, like labor and delivery.)


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