From grass roots, to government, to industry—Bloomington concerned about face masks to guard against COVID-19

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Kelly Clark accepts a donation of freshly-sewn fabric face masks to the Bloomington Indiana Fabric Mask Drive at a downtown Bloomington parking lot on Thursday evening. (Dave Askins/Square Beacon)

A virtual press conference on Monday featured various government officials, who talked about local measures that are being taken to address the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s so far claimed 17 lives in the state.

During the conference, Bloomington city councilmember Dave Rollo posed a question: Could the Monroe County health department issue a declaration saying that grocery stores cannot prohibit their workers from wearing masks to protect themselves and others from infection with COVID-19?

Rollo didn’t get an answer to the question at the press conference—a technical glitch prevented some county officials from joining the call.

Whether grocery store workers are allowed to wear face masks is just one part of the issue Rollo raised.

The other part of the issue is: Where would masks for grocery workers come from? It is health care workers, not grocery clerks, who are the top priority for masks approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). And such masks are in short supply.

In Bloomington, Indiana, the effort to bootstrap more masks ranges from Cook Medical, to Kroger, to some grass roots efforts.

Why did Rollo spotlight the ability of grocery workers to wear masks? He pointed to research about people who don’t yet have COVID-19 symptoms—dry cough, cough, fever, tiredness, difficulty breathing. They can still transmit the disease, Rollo said. And they are most infectious before and during the first week of having symptoms.

So even if people monitor themselves and stay home from work as soon as they start showing COVID-19 symptoms, they still had a chance to infect others. That chance came while they were at work, for the few days before they started having symptoms.

People are still allowed to go out to buy groceries. So grocery workers will still necessarily come in contact with a lot of the public. That means grocery workers have high potential to be infected and, in turn, to infect a lot of people.

That’s why Rollo concluded about grocery workers: “I think they need masks, to protect themselves and to protect the customers.”

Rollo said at the press conference he’d heard anecdotally that a local grocer had prohibited its workers from wearing masks. That’s why he wondered if the health department could issue a directive. When The Square Beacon followed up with Rollo, he said if the health department isn’t able to issue the kind of directive he had in mind, he thinks the city council’s consideration of a new local law might be warranted.

Kroger, a grocery chain that has five Bloomington area locations, won’t need any extra encouragement to allow its workers to wear face masks. That’s based on a statement to The Square Beacon from Eric Halvorson manager of public affairs for Kroger’s central division: “Kroger associates are permitted to wear masks and gloves. So, we would appreciate a city measure that would provide such protection.”

A Tuesday press release from Kroger stated, “The company now plans additional steps designed to protect the health and safety of our associates and customers. As a result, Kroger shoppers may soon see associates wearing protective masks and gloves.”

When The Square Beacon visited the Kroger location at 2nd Street and College Avenue on Thursday evening, the mask-and-glove protocol did not appear to have been implemented, yet.

Kroger’s news release asked for help from government officials to ensure that grocery workers are in line for masks, even if their priority is not as high as that of health care workers: “We are asking government officials at all levels for help securing a priority place for all grocery workers—after health care workers—to have access to protective masks and gloves.”

To ensure adequate numbers of masks for its health care workers, IU Health could eventually be getting some help from Bloomington-based Cook Medical. In a statement to The Square Beacon from Marsha Lovejoy, manager of corporate communications for Cook, she said, “We are also partnering with IU Health to explore the possibility of using our sterilization facilities to sterilize masks. This would help that healthcare system extend the life of their masks until the supply chain can catch up with demand.”

According to Lovejoy’s statement, Cook Medical manufactures devices used in the intensive care of COVID-19 patients—difficult airway devices, tracheostomy devices, central venous catheters and drainage catheters. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cook is now working to increase capacity for those devices, according to Lovejoy.

It’s the local grassroots efforts to provide more masks that might be the most visible. At a regular time every day for the last week or so, Kelly Clark and Nola Neher Hartman, have been appearing at a the 6th and Lincoln parking lot in downtown, as part of the Bloomington Indiana Fabric Mask Drive.

People who want to sew masks can pick up material from that downtown location. Bundles of finished masks get dropped off there. The transactions consist in part of tossing things through open car windows—in an effort to minimize contact between people.

On Thursday evening, Clark asked a mask tailor who’d just handed over a bundle of newly sewn masks if she was in the Bloomington Quilter’s Guild. Yes, was the answer. “I thought so, because these are deliciously beautiful!” Clark told her.

The connection to the guild is through Hartman, who’s a guild member. Clark is a physical therapist, but she’s shut her business, Patient PT, for now, and is putting a full time effort into organizing the local manufacturing and distribution of fabric masks.

So far, about 700 masks have been distributed by the fabric mask drive, according to Clark. People and organizations who need masks, can register on the website that Clark has set up. Clark told The Square Beacon that she puts all the newly sewn masks through the washer and dryer before distributing them, to ensure they’re sterile when they’re handed over.

The mask sewing pattern advocated by Clark has pleats, and they’re not just for decoration. Pleats are key to the fit, because they flex enough for you to open your mouth without popping the mask off the top of your nose—something Clark demonstrated for The Square Beacon with a pleat-less model.

Clark said one of the time drains she’s encountered with the project comes from naysayers, who claim that fabric masks don’t work or even help spread disease.

The current Centers for Disease Control  guidance is that a bandana or a scarf can be used by a healthcare provider as a “last resort” for COVID-19 protection, if an approved face mask isn’t available.

The masks that Clark is helping to get made and distributed are way better than a bandana, she says. The pleats are one feature that make them better.

And the pattern includes a slot for a pipe cleaner, across the edge of the mask, where it crosses the bridge of the wearer’s nose. The wire is pressed to conform with the contour of the wearer’s nose, giving the mask a custom fit. Another feature is a layer of garment facing, which gives the mask more than just a simple fabric layer.

The county health department’s website has a link to a different grass roots mask manufacturing effort. Christina Kempf, who’s the county’s public health coordinator, told The Square Beacon that 113 masks have been dropped off and delivered so far through that program.

At the Bloomington city council’s Wednesday meeting, Monroe County’s health administrator, Penny Caudill talked briefly about homemade masks. She told the council that the masks people are making themselves aren’t approved for medical care, but they can be helpful if you have nothing else.

Caudill also said the need for personal protective equipment (PPE), like masks, is greater than the supply. But there is a system in place where local health care providers notify her of their needs and she forwards the information to the state.

Caudill said masks and other protective equipment in the Strategic National Stockpile have strict guidelines on how they can be distributed. Health care workers are the top priority.

Rollo asked Caudill about health care workers at Bloomington Hospital, “Do they have adequate masks at this time?” Caudill answered, “As far as I know, they do.”

One thought on “From grass roots, to government, to industry—Bloomington concerned about face masks to guard against COVID-19

  1. I would think it would be a violation of the ADA to prevent something that someone needed to physically perform their duties

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