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Alaska Life

As the need for masks rises during the pandemic, volunteers work to keep Alaska covered

  • Author: Marc Lester
  • Updated: April 15, 2020
  • Published April 15, 2020

In addition to being one of the Alaska Mask Makers administrators, Ashley Olanna has sewn more than 400 masks to donate to essential workers. (Marc Lester / ADN)

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Skilled professionals and talented hobbyists, connected by a thread of community concern, have teamed up since Alaska’s virus crisis began. Two Anchorage-based groups are among the many efforts happening statewide to keep Alaska’s essential workers covered.

Last month, Ashley Olanna, Violet Kaye and Lorie Hardin joined forces on social media to rally sewers to create cloth face coverings to support essential workers in Alaska as the coronavirus situation worsened. Their Facebook group exploded in popularity and now involves hundreds of sewing enthusiasts statewide.

“People have just come together and been so creative,” Hardin said. “We have sewers from Kotzebue, Nome, Delta Junction, Soldotna, Anchorage, all over Alaska.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends the use of cloth face coverings in public settings, in addition to social distancing, as a way to slow the spread of the coronavirus from people who don’t know they are infected.

It wasn’t until Monday that Hardin and Olanna had a chance to meet face to face. They talked from the open doors of their vehicles in a church parking lot as others dropped off donated masks.

Hardin said the work can bring peace and joy during a scary time. “It’s given me a purpose,” Olanna said.

Hardin said she launched Alaska Mask Makers after she saw a television news report of similar effort elsewhere. Hardin, who works as a family and custody mediator, joked that Alaska needed to release its “state fabric reserves” -- the ample supplies that sewers are known to keep in their personal stockpiles.

“By the next day, we had 300 people,” Hardin said.

Lorie Hardin wears a mask while she waits for donations from other Alaska Mask Makers on April 13, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Soon, Hardin joined forces with Olanna and Violet Kaye to co-administer the Alaska Mask Makers Facebook group. Each specializes in a different task.

Hardin focuses on outreach to sewers and responding to questions from volunteers. Kaye manages requests for masks from community groups. Olanna, who operates a home-based sewing business to sell items online, produced tutorial videos for making the cloth-face-covering style masks.

“Right now, we have about 300 volunteers actively sewing for projects,” said Kaye, an economics and sociology student at UAA. “I’m just beyond overwhelmed by it.”

It’s satisfying work, but it’s not relaxing, Olanna said. She estimated that she has sewn more than 400 masks so far.

“It feels pretty intense, actually, because you feel like you want to produce as much as you can and the highest-quality that you can,” Olanna said.

Members of the Alaska Mask Makers Facebook group have made a combined 37,668 fabric face coverings as of Wednesday, Hardin said. That number includes masks that sewers have donated directly to people and organizations and those distributed by other Alaska Mask Makers volunteers. Recipients have included workers for grocery stores, cargo airlines, the military and various government agencies. Coverings have been delivered to at least 14 separate communities in Alaska, Hardin said.

“We have filled the requests of 56 separate organizations,” she said.

Alaska Mask Makers organizer Lorie Hardin, left, takes donated masks from Theresa Reed on April 13, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)
A bin holds homemade cloth face coverings donated to the Alaska Mask Makers effort on April 13, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)

On Monday, Theresa Reed, of Anchorage, dropped off 20 finished masks. Reed said she planned to make 35 more this week.

“I like to think positive. If there’s something we can do to help each other, then that’s what we need to do,” Reed said. “That’s what Alaska’s about.”

Alaska Mask Makers doesn’t sell individual masks. Organizations who want to request them can fill out a form on the Facebook page, Kaye said.

A high-tech backup plan

A much smaller team is focused on a more technical mask-making effort in Anchorage. Brendan Babb, Anchorage’s chief innovation officer, has been coordinating with medical professionals and 3D printers to hone a design for N95 masks that provide a high, medical-grade level of protection. He said his goal is to fine-tune a backup plan for medical workers in the event that existing supplies dry up.

“We hope that we don’t have to use these,” Babb said. “This is like a Plan-C thing.”

Babb has been working with an Anchorage doctor who has experience with 3D printing. The doctor did not want to be identified, nor did another clinical professional who regularly contributes to the project. A Dimond High School student is also lending his skills with computer-aided design, Babb said. The team is in regular contact online.

“The weird part is none of us have ever met in real life,” Babb said.

The team started with a design created in Spain and another from Montana. Those have been modified repeatedly to accommodate different face shapes and filtering materials.

“We’ve done 10 iterations,” Babb said.

Dale Rooney works with an earilier design to 3D print an N95 mask on March 23, 2020. (Dale Rooney photo)

Now they have two models available in five sizes each. They call their most recent design LaAnchoria, a nod to the city of Anchorage and to the Spanish “LaFactoria” design from which it’s derived.

Babb has also been compiling contact information for volunteers with 3D printers who would help print masks. That’s 40 people, as of Wednesday. Babb makes clear that hospitals are not partners in the project and the designs are not approved by any regulatory agency. There are some signs that 3D-printed N95s are gaining acceptance nationwide, but he doesn’t want to wait to see if Anchorage reaches the dire shortage of personal protective equipment before figuring out how to solve that problem.

“We would rather have a thousand of these that we never use than be in the opposite situation,” Babb said.

The masks are for health care professionals only right now, Babb said, and people interested in ordering one need to first be sized. The next sizing session is tentatively scheduled for April 20 and 21. More information is available on the AlaskaCovid19PPE webpage. Proper use of an N95 mask also requires a fit-testing procedure that uses taste and smell to detect leakage. For now, that process will be up to the mask recipient to obtain, Babb said.

As of Tuesday, 147 people have placed orders for 3D-printed N95 masks. Fourteen of them have been printed so far, he said.

Digital images show the most recent design of the ’LaAnchoria ’ 3D printed N95 mask. (Courtesy Brendan Babb)

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