Quilters on front lines in protecting health-care staff in Madison community

MASKS MADE by community members are helping local medical facilities to conserve personal protective equipment, which is being recommended by the CDC and by the state Department of Health. Both Madison Regional Health System and Bethel Lutheran Home are accepting donations.

Community members are stepping up to help meet a need identified by local health-care facilities in the face of the threat posed by COVID-19. Quilters and others who sew are making fabric surgical masks for Madison Regional Health System and Bethel Lutheran Home.

"There are ladies all over the city and county making these masks," said one of the mask-makers, Michele Keppen. "We have sewing machines, and it's something we can do."

Chuck Johnson, CEO and administrator at Bethel, explained that handcrafted masks are being used at the recommendation of the CDC to help conserve the personal protective equipment that health-care facilities currently have on hand. He said the state Department of Health is being very proactive in working to meet the supply needs in the state, but is recommending conservation strategies such as this.

"When and if things escalate, and if we happen to have a case in house, we will have the proper equipment to care for them," Johnson said.

He emphasized that Bethel currently has adequate supplies on hand and is in weekly contact with both state officials and health-care associations to stay abreast of developments. He said the state has a procurement process in place and is prepared to ask health-care facilities to share supplies if necessary.

Bethel is being proactive in other ways as well. The facility is closed to visitors and screens staff daily to prevent the virus from entering the nursing home. However, with a five- to 14-day incubation period during which an exposed person may be contagious without knowing it, the possibility does exist that these precautions may not be adequate. Preparing for this possibility is one way the nursing home is working to keep the residents safe.

MRHS is requesting masks for a similar reason, according to CEO Tammy Miller. Like Bethel, MRHS is closed to visitors, including the cafeteria. Those who need services are screened upon entering the building.

"We are making sure to protect current supplies due to a nationwide shortage of surgical masks," Miller said in a press release. "It is important to stay on top of this issue because surgical masks are crucial to keeping our staff and patients safe from COVID-19."

MRHS has put out a request to the community on its Facebook page that includes a link to detailed instructions for making masks that include a pocket for a filter and a wire that holds the mask snugly over the wearer's nose. In addition to accepting donations of masks, the facility is accepting donations of fabric, elastic and other supplies needed to make the masks.

For mask-makers, the donation of elastic would be especially helpful. Alana Heinricy, a quilter who helped to find the tutorial for these masks, said she currently has 110 masks ready to finish -- as soon as she gets the elastic.

Both Keppen and Heinricy began to make masks after being encouraged to do so by family members. Both have daughters who work at MRHS. Both are quilters with fabric on hand.

Heinricy said that she has totes and totes of scraps on hand. She initially became aware of the need when she saw posts on social media. She talked with her daughter, Kari Bruns, who encouraged her to pursue her interest. Heinricy looked at various options and consulted with her sister-in-law, who is also a quilter. They identified a pattern with a pocket for a filter and a wire to fit over the nose.

Heinricy then made a template for her daughter to show hospital administrators. Not only Miller, but also Kathy Hansen, director of quality, safety and emergency preparedness, and Beth Graff, director of clinic and community patient services, felt the masks would meet the medical facility's needs.

"They're really quite easy," Heinricy said about the pattern being used. "After I made one, I could do it in my sleep."

She said that even though she doesn't usually sew at night, she has begun to do so to help MRHS get the supply of masks they will need. Doing this helps her feel that she's making a difference in these uncertain times.

Keppen feels much the same way.

"Many of us are elderly and it's something we can do," she said.

She is currently sheltering from home but feels connected to the wider community in knowing that others are engaged in this activity. She said quilters talk to other quilters, and more are becoming involved in the project.

"It's just kind of a wildfire. I'm so optimistic about this whole thing," Keppen said.

She estimates the masks take about 15-20 minutes to make, but she isn't sure because she works on several at one time.

"It's like factory work. You get your groove and you start mass producing," she said.

At MRHS, the drop-off location is at the front entrance. Donations are being accepted Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. At Bethel, the drop-off location is also at the front entrance. A staff person will meet the individual outside the main doors since no visitors are allowed access.

Administrators from both facilities are grateful for this outpouring of community support.

"Staff and patients are grateful for any donations we receive, and we are very thankful with how supportive the community is in tough situations like this," Miller said.