As campus emptied amid the COVID-19 pandemic, small groups of volunteers took to Bartels Hall to help sew surgical masks — aid for local medical facilities during a massive supply shortage.
The effort began when Carol O’Driscoll, director of surgical services for Cayuga Medical Center, noticed bags of “blue wrap” in a hospital hallway. There is currently no shortage of the material, which hospitals normally use to wrap used surgical instruments. O’Driscoll’s research revealed that the blue wrap met the permeability standards for surgical masks.
After enlisting a few of her recovery nurses to create a prototype, O’Driscoll decided to move forward with a community effort to upcycle the material into medical masks.
Seeking a large space where volunteers could observe social distancing rules while producing the masks, O’Driscoll reached out to the University and coordinated the use of Bartels Hall to stage a makeshift assembly plant.
Surgical mask production began on March 24, with approximately 20 volunteers, who were required to pass a medical screening before entering. Volunteers also observed social distancing guidelines, sitting six feet apart and wearing protective equipment while they worked.
On the first day of operation, volunteers cut and sewed approximately 240 masks by hand.
The College of Human Ecology has since stepped in to help, offering its Digital Design and Fabrication Studio to speed up production.
“The D2FS has been laser cutting the hospital’s supplied materials into the necessary shapes needed to sew the masks,” Charles Beach, Jr., the studio’s supervisor, wrote in an email to The Sun. “We have a secured laser cutting room with only one person allowed in for that day.”
The effort to produce medical masks expanded after an influx of volunteers from the Ithaca community responded to the call for help. By March 30, the team had more than doubled, with two different shifts of nearly 30 sewers each.
With the assistance of a laser cutter and extra sewers, volunteers were able to quickly ramp up production of the masks, producing 520 on March 25, 1,110 on March 27 and 1,650 on March 30.
Prof. Kim Phoenix, fiber science and apparel design, has been sewing for the program since the start, but said she was most impressed by the Ithaca community’s enthusiastic response to a call for volunteers.
“Quite a few people are here sewing from the community,” Phoenix said. “[It’s] amazing what happens when you call for volunteers in Ithaca, people just show up.”
According to Phoenix, O’Driscoll has received an influx of inquiries from medical facilities across the country because of the program’s success.
“She’s been contacted by places all over the country now,” Phoenix said. “It’s being used as a model.”