As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, businesses and community members are banding together to solve what problems they can.

From the start, many businesses and groups worked to provide food for community members in need. Now, as sanitation and medical supplies are limited, they are once again organizing to take matters into their own hands.

Five Rocks Distilling Co. is gaining attention for using its facilities in Brainerd to make hand sanitizer. In the meantime, community members have come together on Facebook through a group called BLA Community Ties to either guide community members to much-needed resources or to organize the creation of such resources.

That's how Ryan Hunt and Lynn Hunt, both of Pine River, and Holly Ulm, of Brainerd, wound up heading an effort to create face masks.

In the lakes area, area hospitals haven't run out of masks yet, but some are having a hard time finding the much-needed N95 respirators and surgical face masks. As such, hospitals are welcoming community-level efforts to bolster the supply of masks with handmade cloth masks.

“We are accepting donations between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday,” said Kathy Sell, Essentia Health marketing and communications manager in Brainerd. “You just pull right up to the front of the hospital, stay in your car and one of our staff will come pick it up from you while you're still in your car for safety reasons.”

Though many know the masks are especially important now, Sell said they are always appreciated.

“On any given day, this environment aside, we have patients coming in for cancer treatment where some of those things are helpful to them,” Sell said. “So it's not just today's scenario. We graciously accept whatever the community is offering and we'll use it as relevant.”

Ryan Hunt believes more than just hospital personnel should be wearing such masks.

“Pretty much everyone should be wearing a mask when they're out in the public now, just in case they're a carrier (of the coronavirus),” he said. “So they're not spraying their spit all over the place.”

Lynn Hunt said many of these masks aren't necessarily to prevent the wearer from getting sick, so much as to prevent the wearer from getting others sick, especially if they don't yet know they are sick and contagious.

“The main thing is the mask is not to prevent you getting the virus as much as preventing you from sharing the virus,” she said.

The BLA Community Ties group quickly rounded up those with sewing skills to provide masks for virtually anyone in need. They quickly branched off to yet another group where Ulm, whose business making butterfly wing jewelry and other accessories has been put on hold due to store closures, is now working to coordinate the nearly overwhelming number of volunteers and groups in need.

“The most challenging thing is keeping up with the communication. There's just so many people who are in need of masks and new people are coming up every day that we hadn't considered,” Ulm said. “And then communicating and getting all the sewers able to support each other. That's really been coming together in the last couple of days. The Facebook group has been solidifying.”

Lynn Hunt has been one among those volunteers.

“We have probably 18 people doing some aspects of sewing now,” she said.

In merely days one portion of the group, dedicated just to sewing, grew to more than 100 after the interview with Lynn.

Aside from the challenge of organization, one of the most surprising challenges so far has been sourcing elastic.

“The most difficult thing to find, oddly, has been elastic,” Ulm said. “Elastic is in really short supply. We actually just yesterday got a donation from Common Goods in Baxter.”

There are many resources for those who would like to contribute. There are websites with patterns and guidelines as well as kits available from various fabric stores. There are some guidelines:

  • The inside of the mask should be discernible from the outside for ease of use and sanitation reasons.
  • Cotton material is recommended by many mask making groups. The material should have a tight weave such as that in T-shirts and pillowcases.
  • Once finished, masks should be washed and dried, and then removed, handled and packaged for donation with gloves and mask to avoid contamination.

Instructions from Essentia Health are available at https://www.essentiahealth.org/covid-19/ways-to-get-involved/how-to-create-a-face-mask .

Face shields

Ryan Hunt noted some facilities reporting a shortage of plastic face shields. As a member of Hunt Utilities Group, he realized he had access to manufacturing equipment that could be used to make much-needed shields.

“We made a couple dozen ourselves in our shop and gave them to the local nurses,” he said. “It all started when I started following the open source medical equipment group on Facebook.”

Hunt found designs for 3-D printable parts from the University of Wisconsin. That was where they got started.

He quickly sought additional help from others and was rewarded when Rob Garberich, of LINDAR Corporation in Brainerd, joined forces to use those facilities for production of shields.

“We called LINDAR on Friday and talked about, 'can they do it?'” Hunt said. “By Monday we decided LINDAR was going to be doing the entire manufacturing process, not just giving us pieces of plastic and filling orders.”

It became quickly apparent that LINDAR, as a company that works in thermo-forming plastics, was more equipped for the project, and the company took over what Hunt had started.

“We have the plastics needed for the shields,” Garberlich said. “We have hundreds of thousands of pounds of it, so we are able to do that quickly.”

LINDAR also found a shortage of elastic for its project, though Garberlich said vendors have been contributing where they can for other materials.

“One of the vendors donated the dye and they're just so appreciative of being a part of something that can help people,” Garberlich said.

After sourcing materials, LINDAR started production on thousands of masks that will be sold for less than $2.25 each to those on the front lines of healthcare at this time. Providers can simply contact LINDAR to purchase the shields. The company is also looking into additional tools in the fight against COVID-19.

“It's really awesome,” said Garberlich. “For me, personally, it is totally different. This fellowship to kick this thing off has been real positive."

Now that masks and shields are being constructed, Ryan Hunt said the online group is looking into production of aprons and gowns.

In addition to sewn masks and face shields, Essentia and other hospitals are accepting donations of other personal protective equipment, including: unopened gloves, unopened N95 masks, unopened packages of gowns, unopened eye protection, financial donations and food deliveries for hospital staff. Other area facilities may need donations as well, including nursing homes and care centers, clinics and many others.