With 3D printers and sewing machines, group creates masks & face shields for Muskegon seniors, health care workers, and others

Masks made by City of Muskegon Commissioner Michael Ramsey, a member of the Muskegon Sewing Circle of Love group. Photo courtesy of Michael Ramsey

When BoomTown Market owner Dana Precious started the “Muskegon Sewing Circle of Love” Facebook group about one week ago, 18 people immediately signed up. Then, there were 50 individuals within 24 hours. One hundred in 72 hours. Now, there’s 138. And that number continues to grow.

From homes throughout Muskegon, the members of this group are turning to their sewing machines and 3D printers to make masks and face shields for a community facing the coronavirus that is spreading across Michigan. At kitchen counters and dining room tables, in attic work spaces and garages, they create the personal protection devices that are being donated to Meals on Wheels, local nursing homes, hospice centers, the Jefferson Towers senior housing complex in downtown Muskegon, the Roosevelt Park Police Department, the Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo, and Muskegon employees who still have to go to their physical work spaces—such as Precious and her crew at BoomTown, among others. 

“I thought, ‘Shoot, I don’t know how to sew, but I know how to organize,’ so I started the Muskegon Sewing Circle of Love group,” said Precious, who is also using BoomTown Market in downtown Muskegon as the drop-off spot for the completed masks. “At first, hospitals weren’t calling for the masks, so we started making them for nursing homes and whoever called us. We want to make them for anyone who needs them.”

Keigan Murphy is creating face shields using a 3D printer at his home in downtown Muskegon. Photo courtesy of Jack Russell

Members of the group—an eclectic bunch that includes business owners, local legislators, students, educators,  retirees, and others—have carefully scrounged for materials to make the protective gear; one man even drove needed sewing items to BoomTown from Iowa. Using everything from clothing to pipe cleaners and floral wire, the group members are part of a growing army of sewers across the United States—do-it-yourselfers determined to get masks to vulnerable members of our community, including the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, and address daunting shortages of protection equipment for health care workers. 

“I’m thankful for this group,” said Ruthann Sterenberg, a member of the Muskegon Sewing Circle of Love. “We all want to help the community to be safer.”

And while homemade masks are not substitutes for the medical-grade N95 masks that are favored by nurses and other health care professionals across the country, the pieces do offer welcome barriers between people, Precious noted.

“There’s at least some protection from someone sneezing or coughing at you,” Precious said.

Muskegon hospitals have yet to put out a call for the homemade masks, though a couple local hospitals, including Mercy Health, have asked to test the homemade face shields. The demand for homemade items could, of course, change as more coronavirus cases are diagnosed in Muskegon, Precious noted. Doctors in parts of the country hit hard by the coronavirus have, for example, been wearing homemade devices over their N95 masks to prolong the N95 masks’ life spans.

“It frees up the surgical masks for the people who are the highest risk,” Dr. Nicole Seminara, a doctor at NYU Langone Health, told the New York Times in reference to homemade masks. Seminara launched a social media campaign, Masks4Medicine, to enlist the public’s help with making protective devices.

Jack Russell, a downtown Muskegon resident and the owner of Rolar Products, a computer numerical control [CNC] manufacturing company based in Muskegon Heights, and his teenage son, Keigan Murphy, have been creating face shields from their 3D printer at home. Russell’s wife, Karri Russell, too is involved with Precious’ group and has been making masks for nursing homes and other groups throughout the community.

“My 14-year-old son has been printing face shields in his bedroom; we’ve made several—and I gave some to Dana [Precious] and her staff so they could be protected from someone coughing in their faces,” said Russell, whose company is currently manufacturing thousands of parts a week for Benton Harbor’s Gast Manufacturing, which is using the parts to spray disinfectant in buildings as part of an effort to combat COVID-19.

The 3D printers in Chris Kaminsky’s home office. Photo courtesy of Chris Kaminsky

Russell is also working with other members of the sewing group, including Lakeshore Fab Lab Manager Chris Kaminsky, on preparing for a mass influx of requests for face shields from health care organizations, including hospitals.

Mercy Health and Holland Hospital, for example, recently asked for the 3D printed face shields in order to test them, Kaminsky said. Both Russell and Kaminsky noted they could have a large-scale face shield printing operation ready to go, provided there’s funding in place. Russell said that about 1,000 face shields could be made for $1,500.

“We could probably bust out 1,000 of them in an eight-hour day with six or seven volunteers at stations set up six feet apart from each other,” said Kaminsky, who too has been making face shields on 3D printers at home. He hopes they’ll be able to have these operations ready to go before the hospitals potentially fill with coronavirus patients.

“We see what’s happening in other cities, and I worry that’s going to be West Michigan really quickly,” Kaminsky said, referring to the exponential growth of the coronavirus.

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COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that can cause, among other symptoms, a fever, dry cough and shortness of breath; it is 10 times more fatal than the flu, according to Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In the worst COVID-19 cases, patients’ lungs will fill with so much fluid that no amount of breathing support can help, and the patient dies.

The highly contagious virus is believed to spread primarily between people who are in close contact with one another and is passed through respiratory droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Health officials have also noted the virus may remain on surfaces, such as plastic and stainless steel, for days.

Because COVID-19 is a new disease and is highly contagious, it presents a slew of issues for a world fighting to contain the global pandemic: humans have not built up an immunity to it, there is no vaccine for it yet, and its symptoms often don’t present themselves until two to 14 days after being exposed to the virus—which potentially allows a carrier of the disease to expose it to others without realizing they are doing so. All of these factors allow for the exponential growth of the number of COVID-19 cases. Such an explosion of cases then overwhelms health care systems, which we’ve seen occur in places like Italy, New York City and Detroit.

Worldwide, there are about half a million cases of COVID-19, and coronavirus-related deaths have risen to approximately 23,000 people, according to the World Health Organization. Nationally, there are a little more than 74,000 cases of COVID-19, and 1,094 people have died in the U.S. from the disease as of Thursday afternoon, according to statistics from the federal government. In Michigan, there are 2,856 cases of COVID-19, and there have been 60 deaths, state health officials reported. Muskegon County has six confirmed cases of COVID-19; health officials reported the first two coronavirus-related deaths on Friday, March 27.

Masks made by Ruthann Sterenberg, a member of the Muskegon Sewing Circle of Love. Photo courtesy of Ruthann Sterenberg

As West Michigan health care workers brace themselves for the kind of influx of coronavirus cases that other places have experienced, members of the Muskegon Sewing Circle of Love group know there could be a dramatic increase in the need for protective equipment. Even now, without an explosion of COVID-19 patients, Mercy Health nurses said they are experiencing a shortage of needed equipment, including masks.

“We’re putting the call out there saying, ‘If you need masks, we have them,’” said Precious, who is also heading an initiative to support downtown businesses struggling in the wake of the coronavirus. 

While Kaminsky said COVID-19 and the fallout from it—including the Fab Lab being closed—has “hit me on an emotional level,” he’s also been inspired by the work of 3D printers around the world. A technology start-up in Italy, for example, used a 3D printer to adapt full-face snorkeling masks into a hospital ventilators.

“I couldn’t even keep up with the emails and messages from people sending me articles about the 3D ventilators out of Italy,” Kaminsky said. “When people think of this kind of movement—3D printing—they think of the Fab Lab, and that hit home for me. If I can help so somebody’s parents or grandparents don’t get infected and die, I want to do that.”

And some day, when all of this has passed, Sterenberg hopes she can meet those who filled these dark days with joy.

“I feel this nasty virus has brought so many people together to help people in need,” Sterenberg said. “When this virus is over, our sewing group should meet up in person.”

If you would like to join the Muskegon Sewing Circle of Love, or support their efforts financially, please click here to contact them on Facebook. To learn more about the efforts to produce face shields, or to support these efforts financially, please email Chris Kaminsky at lakeshorefablab@muskegoncc.edu.

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing muskegontimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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