During the last couple months, organizations and individuals around the state have mobilized resources and built networks to fight COVID-19 and its economic devastation.
Fundraising organizations have diverted money to agencies in need, those with sewing skills have dropped their projects to start sewing masks, those in the tech community have been brainstorming new uses for their tools and individuals have rounded up personal protection equipment for health care workers.
One of the latest examples of these collaborations is a project initiated by the Wyoming Community Foundation to make and distribute masks made with medical-grade fabric, in the process drawing on the varied expertise of a number of groups.
Micah Richardson, director of programs and communications for the foundation, said her organization was initially motivated by the need for personal protective equipment in the state.
“We started reading about the shortage of PPE and wondered if there was something that we could do to help with this,” she said.
Their research led them to learn about Halyard fabric, a name-brand term to describe fabric used to wrap surgical tools once they’ve been sterilized, to protect them from airborne contamination. While a mask made from such material isn’t the equivalent of an N95 surgical mask, it’s a step up in protection from airborne particles compared to a fabric mask.
The Wyoming Community Foundation contacted Cheyenne Regional Medical Center looking for fabric, and Perry Phillips, manager of biomedical engineering, arranged the donation of generic sterile wrap material.
“We happened to have an extra pallet of that material,” he said.
Phillips said a mask made with such material would be harder to breathe through than a fabric mask, but would protect wearers from spreading droplets from their mouth or nose. Masks can be decontaminated using ultraviolet light and then reused several times.
“It’s mostly to keep people from spreading the virus if they happen to have it,” he said.
Richardson also contacted Atmosphere Mountainworks in Laramie, which sells handmade outdoor gear and has been making fabric masks for the last couple months. The store was able to take on the new project with support from the foundation.
“We normally fund nonprofits, but because they changed their business model to provide charitable goods and become basically a charitable organization for the community, we were able to put money towards funding them,” Richardson said.
Owner Lindsay Olson said her employees have been working out the most efficient method to produce masks and make the most of their materials.
“We don’t waste much at Atmosphere when we’re doing our normal production, and it feels even more important now,” she said. “Materials can be scarce.”
They ran into a snag as they considered what to use for a metal nose piece, which keeps the mask fitted to the wearer’s face. They couldn’t purchase the necessary pieces anywhere because all suppliers were sold out. They tried making nose pieces from wire but the process was too slow.
As Richardson and Olson brainstormed solutions, they remembered WyoTech, Laramie’s automotive technical college.
Jadeen Mathis, director of communication, said WyoTech had material on hand and the tools and expertise to cut metal nose pieces for about 1,000 masks. WyoTech instructors were available for the project because the school had yet to resume classes.
“We love being a team player out here,” she said. “We love being a part of things like that.”
Olson said the collaboration was an example of people with diverse skills contributing to a single effort.
“They work in metals, where we do not,” she said. “They have the tools to make short work of something like that.”
Meanwhile, Richardson contacted the Wyoming Technology Coronavirus Coalition, a statewide network of technology-minded makers. The group was organized in March by Eric Trowbridge, who leads the Cheyenne-based Array School of Technology and Design.
Coalition member Tyler Kerr, makerspace coordinator at the University of Wyoming, used his equipment to cut fabric strips for the masks, while the coalition also collected requests from around the state to aid in distributing them.
“It’s very cool to see so many people coming together to support each other right now,” Richardson said.
The Wyoming Community Foundation also has a COVID-19 fund for nonprofits that are working with vulnerable populations. Funding is available to anyone in Wyoming, and the foundation has distributed more than $200,000 in the last six weeks.