Coronavirus: Mask-making volunteers turn to caps and surgical gowns in Northeast Kingdom

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When the novel coronavirus was ramping up, St. Johnsbury native Kim Behr knew she needed to do something to help. 

She reached out to Northeastern Regional Vermont Hospital, which said it needed cloth face masks for healthcare workers and staff.

Not a professional sewer, Behr quickly found herself the organizer for 116 sewers and in charge of making it happen when the hospital, pleased with the masks, made additional requests for surgical gowns and caps.

The community banded together, utilizing the skills of Northeast Kingdom residents to support the hospital and local health care workers.

Northeast Kingdom Operation Face mask

Once the face mask need was established, Behr took to Facebook and Front Porch Forum to elicit support. “Holy Toledo Batman, the response was amazing,” she said.

She formed the group Northeast Kingdom Operation Face Mask. The group’s website serves as a hub for patterns and instructions for sewers as well as a face mask request service.

Behr said the group includes many home quilters, but also Bread and Puppet community theater, 10-year-olds to 90-year-olds, kids and attorneys. Together they produced more than 3,500 masks by April 23. 

In addition to the hospital, masks went to Home Health in Newport, the area Agency on Aging, local stores for essential workers to use and others. “We’re making them and sending them out as fast as they’re made,” Behr said.

She said people find it therapeutic to sew and contribute to the effort against COVID-19, which is the official name of the disease related to the coronavirus that first started to affect people at the end of 2019. 

From wedding gowns to surgical gowns

Grateful for the face masks and recognizing the beginning of personal protective equipment shortages, Northeastern Regional Vermont Hospital reached out to the sewers with an even bigger challenge: to sew surgical gowns and caps for hospital workers.

Mandy Chapman, the hospital’s executive assistant to the CEO, said “the group was very receptive to a much larger project.” 

Catamount Arts, which was involved in a similar project with Northern Counties Healthcare (NCHC), contacted local wedding gown designer Tara Lynn Scheidet for assistance creating a surgical gown pattern. Typically, the locally-based Fashion Institute of Technology alum would be producing “eco couture suits, wedding gowns and wearable art dedicated to endangered species” for clients through her label, Tara Lynn.

“I knew I had the skills, materials and resources they needed. I stopped everything I was doing to get things done for them ASAP,” Scheidet said. 

Scheidet started by making a pattern from an extra large-sized cloth hospital worker surgical gown. “I graded it to a size medium, typed up sewing instructions, a flat sketch, and step- by-step photos on how to make the gowns,” she wrote in an email. “I also bagged up trim, elastic, bias binding, and rolls of twill tape for them to get sewing.”

She sewed around a dozen and gave the prototypes to NCHC medical worker staff to begin sewing. 

“Before we knew it, generous people in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont were coming out of the woodwork to donate fabric and help sew,” she said.

That is when Scheidet and Behr connected. Scheidet utilized her New York City fashion connections to get the pattern digitized so they could be copied for anyone to use.

Outfitting the front lines

Brenda Smith, an emergency room nurse at Northeast Vermont Regional Hospital, noted that coworkers’ faces and ears were being rubbed by PPE and elastic from face masks. They were using surgical caps with buttons sewn above the ears for looping face mask elastic around, but wondered if these caps could be produced. “Within one hour, I received a phone call from my hospital and an email to get in touch with someone to do just that,” Smith said in a Facebook post

Behr’s group started production. As of April 24, more than 80 caps had been produced and an expected 200 gowns. 

The hospital is waiting for guidance from the CDC or the Vermont Department of Health to put the gowns to use. “We hope that we will be able to use them in most clinical settings to replace many of the disposable gowns,” said Laural Ruggles, the hospital’s vice president of marketing. She is confident they will find a way to use them.

“NCHC medical workers, who would otherwise be unemployed, created 300 surgical gowns and about 350 masks for their staff and the local hospital,” as of April 24, Scheidet said.

The effort has been received with gratefulness by healthcare workers and hospital staff. “It’s a big, symbolic show of community support and that the community is behind them and cares about them and appreciates them coming to work everyday,” Chapman said.

Behr said they are going to continue sewing until they are told to stop. They are in in great need of more elastic; one sewer told Behr they had to “shake down some octogenarians” to get more. 

With creations in colorful, whimsical fabrics, “our hope is that when doctors and nurses see them they laugh out loud,” Behr said.

Contact April Barton at abarton@freepressmedia.com or 802-660-1854. Follow her on Twitter @aprildbarton.

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