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caption: Kaas Tailored employees sew masks on Monday, March 23, 2020, at the Kaas Tailored furniture factory in Mukilteo. 
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Kaas Tailored employees sew masks on Monday, March 23, 2020, at the Kaas Tailored furniture factory in Mukilteo.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Furniture manufacturer near Seattle turns into mask factory for hospitals during coronavirus pandemic

A Mukilteo, Washington furniture factory has stepped up to make surgical masks and face shields for Providence health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. The medical provider had asked the public to help produce protective equipment due to a global shortage of protective gear.

The Providence 100 Million Mask Challenge, launched Thursday, offered kits of special medical-grade materials to Seattle-area volunteers who could use their own sewing machines to stitch masks for health care providers.

Before Providence had even promoted the initiative, “tens of thousands of volunteers signed up,” said Providence spokesperson Melissa Tizon.

When local furniture factory-owner Jeff Kaas heard about the need, “within less than 48 hours, he converted his furniture factory into a mask making factory, making [personal protective equipment] for us,” said Tizon.

Providence gave Kaas Tailored the materials and designs for a surgical mask and face shield.

“He was also able able to consult his engineering colleagues in other countries to help improve the design,” Tizon said, “so we're really, really happy with the product.”

Kaas told KUOW that his factory is halting most of its usual furniture and upholstery production right now, and is "asking customers for some grace" as it diverts its resources to stitching protective garments.

His company produced 1,100 masks on Friday, and 4,000 on Saturday, as well as 800 face shields. "We might double or triple that tomorrow, because we have a bigger crew," Kaas said.

"We're just assuming that it's an infinite amount of need for the next couple weeks," until major manufacturers can meet the need, Kaas said. "Then I'm sure we'll get shut down."

When Providence physicians taking care of COVID-19 patients received the first batch of locally-produced masks, “they were almost in tears as we were dropping them off, because they just need them so much to take care of the people that they're trying to serve,” said Providence St. Joseph Health chief clinical officer Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips in a video about the partnership.

Kaas Tailored has posted the surgical mask and face shield specifications on its website for other manufacturers to use. Kaas said he has already heard from factories in Arizona, St. Louis, the UK and Ireland that want to produce protective equipment using his company’s designs.

Another Seattle-based company, Nordstrom, "shared information with all of their factories that make the Nordstrom product," Kaas said: 300 factories that produce the retailer's house-brand merchandise.

Kaas Tailored is making the masks with Providence’s stock of surgical wrap, which is used to protect equipment after it’s sterilized. All elective surgeries in Washington state were banned on Thursday, which means providers have extra supplies to divert to coronavirus protection efforts.

Tizon said the locally-made masks will hopefully tide Providence over until the usual manufacturers and distributors catch up. “They're pretty backed up and far behind,” Tizon said. “The demand around the globe is massive.”

Not all hospitals are ready to work with homegrown mask producers using unconventional designs, Kaas said. While half a dozen health care providers in the Seattle area have expressed interest in the masks, Kaas said, colleagues in the Netherlands have had a harder time getting traction with health care providers in that country.

Hospitals "tend to be very slow-moving. In some ways that's really smart, because you don't have medical data," Kaas said. "But in other ways, they're cumbersome organizations with perverse incentives, and it can be super-hard to get movement in those complicated environments."

Kaas said Providence has shown itself to be especially nimble - and that the factories he knows about around the world are eager to start producing protective equipment if hospitals partner with them. "Factories are able to move quickly" in order to survive, Kaas said. "None of the [factory owners] I know are wealthy people," Kaas said. "They're just doers."

While Providence has given Kaas all of its medical-grade materials for mask production, there will still be a role for the members of the public who volunteered their time and sewing skills, Tizon said.

The hospital system plans to issue a new call for makers to produce masks out of standard fabric for civilians, especially those who have a harder time social distancing, like people living in homeless shelters.

The Kaas Tailored website also has a video for amateurs who want to start sewing masks right away.

"The primary motivation for this is love," Kaas said, not money. "It's a love-your-neighbor type of deal."