MassLive Reports: Coronavirus mask shortage swings UMass costume shop into action

Original story here

By Ron Chimelis | rchimelis@repub.com
Posted Apr 09, 2020

Times of crisis produce true leaders from unexpected sources, and so it is with the University of Massachusetts Department of Theater’s Costume Shop.

When Kristin Jensen and Felicia Malachite of the shop learned that masks were being shifted from facilities such as veterinary clinics to human hospitals to help address the scarcity, they decided to make cloth masks for animal doctors and other non-emergency health care workers. They have so far produced nearly 200 masks, and hope to continue to make at least 100 per week during the pandemic.

In addition to local veterinary hospitals, the masks have been distributed to the Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst, Amherst Community Connections, Royal Health Group nursing homes, the Western Mass Food Bank, Pioneer Valley Hospice and Palliative Care, the Amherst Survival Center, individual nurses and their colleagues, and various on-site UMass employees who come to campus.

“Kristin and Felicia run our extraordinary costume shop, and this undertaking of theirs – not just crafting the masks but personally arranging for their distribution – is totally in keeping with their dedication, kindness, professionalism and community orientation. And courage,” said Harley Erdman, chair of the Department of Theater, which is housed in the College of Humanities and Fine Arts.

“It is why our costume shop is a place all our students want to work. They are also master technicians in everything they make. They pour tender loving care into everything.”

All theater performances for the semester are canceled, and the campus has been closed as academics have shifted to remote learning. Jensen and Malachite gathered materials from the department to create the handmade masks from their own homes.

“Felicia and I first started making masks on our own during spring break week, the third week of March, when the nationwide need of face masks was becoming so apparent,” Jensen said.

“It just made sense to do this as we have the skills and the materials. By the end of that week, it was clear that this work needed to continue as the need was growing and would continue to grow, and thus, the group project began.”

With the assistance of three graduate students, the designers wanted to get the masks out to the community as effectively and efficiently as possible. Graduate student Mikayla Reid communicated with several organizations to assess needs and plan distribution.

Some organizations needed immediate help. Others thought they were in good shape but found they needed more.

These masks are not intended to replace N95 masks, but that they are still of great value in a healthcare setting for use by patients and employees who would not ordinarily wear a mask. This allows facilities to reserve the N95s for the doctors and nurses.

Jensen says their masks are in high demand by organizations whose employees and volunteers interact with the public.

“We have been making both fitted masks and pleated masks. They are made of pre-washed tightly woven cotton fabrics, and include an opening for the user to insert a filter if they choose,'' Malachite said.

“We aim to honor requests of recipients. Most include a soft strip of wire enclosed within the top edge seam that can be shaped across the bridge of the nose for a closer fit.

"We have been using either elastic or fabric ties, but we have learned that most groups prefer fabric ties as they are more comfortable for someone wearing a mask over an extended period of time. Some have requested a third layer of fabric and several have asked that we not launder them after construction, as they would prefer to sterilize them on location.”

“Everyone has been so thankful, and it feels good to be able to serve the community in this way. We will continue this effort for as long as there is a need,'' Jensen said.