As the United States faces an inadequate supply of masks and other PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) required to protect our frontline healthcare workers from the Covid-19 virus, and the general populace responds to the CDC’s recommendation that we wear masks when we leave our homes, private citizens here in Marin County have stepped up, quickly re-orienting their businesses to help address the critical shortage.
Katie Smith, founder of rockflowerpaper, a San Anselmo-based women’s apparel and home accessory company has, in a matter of weeks, pivoted to manufacturing and importing KN95 masks, which she correctly anticipated would be approved by the FDA. Smith has 35 years of experience importing from China, and when she heard Governor Cuomo’s news conference asking for masks, she jumped into action. “It was really hard to find factories to manufacture regulation masks,” says Smith, “They were all totally booked and it felt like the Wild West, with rising prices, etc.” Smith and her production manager in China worked tenaciously, and ultimately found and vetted several top factories who were willing to give her production. Her employees in China, including her production manager, are stationed on the ground at the factories Smith has contracted to make masks. They are there to guarantee quality and make sure the masks are shipped to the U.S. before they are swooped up by other purchasers, something that is happening regularly in China. Rockflowerpaper has now landed 225,000 masks and has orders in process for over 5 million more.
Meanwhile, Thomas Peters, President and CEO of the Marin Community Foundation (MCF), placed the first major order for rockpaperflower’s masks, which the foundation will distribute to local hospitals, community clinics and nursing homes. While Peters lauds Smith’s foresight and skill in rapidly coordinating the manufacture and import of masks, Smith says the MCF’s order became a critical starting point, giving rockflowerpaper the track record it needed to assure wary hospital purchasing departments of the small company’s authenticity and the caliber of the masks they are importing. “Tom and the Marin Community Foundation deserve a lot of credit,” says Smith. “They really kicked things off for us by placing that first order.” All of the MCF masks delivered to the warehouse this week have already been designated to go to the Marin County hospitals, clinics and nursing homes most in need, but Smith is continuing her efforts to secure KN95 mask production in China and is also considering expanding manufacturing to include other PPE supplies such as surgical masks, which are also in short supply, and plastic face shields.
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Others on the ground here in Marin are finding ways to make products for healthcare workers and for personal use. Redwood High students Olivia and Ella Karrazi saw their doctor father making his own plastic protective face shield, so they used his instructions to create a template which they shared on their @shieldagainstthespread Instagram account. Local handbag designer Lynn Tallerico of Lynn Tallerico Handbags saw the template and repurposed her handbag studio to create shields for doctors and nurses. She has partnered with Laura Ephrat, the founder of Little Wishes Foundation and a pediatric nurse at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, who identifies the hospitals in the most desperate need. Tellerico’s sewing contractor, Theresa Begay Sands of Red Sands designs has donated her time and to date the team has made approximately 100 shields. (Tallerico is accepting donations of polycarbonate lightweight plastic and ¼” elastic, you can e-mail them here. )
In San Rafael, Rough Linens is using linen sheet fabric to make basic masks for Kaiser Permanente’s medical staff of health care workers and first responders. The masks are made according to safety specifications set up by Kaiser Permanente Safety Specialist Rachel Clawson. “This is a wonderful use for our linen,” says founder Tricia Rose. “We always try to minimize waste and this is the best possible way for us to give back to the community when it needs us most.” Rough Linens delivered 100 masks last week and plans to ramp up production to donate 150- 250 linen masks to Kaiser each week. Similarly, swimwear company dawne FLOURINE is turning deadstock (leftover) fabric into masks available for purchase for personal use on their website, while national retailer JOANN Fabrics and Craft Stores, offers online tutorials on how to make DIY face masks at home. The company is encouraging the public to support frontline healthcare workers by dropping off their DIY masks at their stores (in Marin JOANN is based in Corte Madera), where they will then be donated to local hospitals.
“These stories I am hearing from doctors and nurses, people are doing surgery on Covid patients without masks …” says rockflowerpaper’s Smith shaking her head. “This situation and the shortages are not going away anytime soon, so I am just hoping I can continue to import and deliver these supplies.”
Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist who writes about all things North Bay, with special attention to the environment and the region’s farmers, winemakers and food artisans. She also works and teaches in school gardens. Kirsten’s poetry collection, When The House Is Quiet, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and three of her poems received a Pushcart nomination. She lives in Novato with her husband and three children and tries to spend as much time as possible on our local mountains, beaches and waterways. For more on her work visit KirstenJonesNeff.com.