Jennifer Oberg normally uses her dressmaking skills to enhance the best times of people’s lives, but now she’s working to help them survive the worst. Instead of custom-made wedding gowns, she’s making medical-grade masks for health care professionals faced with a shortage of personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To help, she has recruited a swift-moving network that includes doctors, fundraisers, a private school and dozens of hands-on volunteers.
Oberg, who owns Jennifer Oberg Atelier in Makawao, began her career working in opera and theater costume shops on the East and West coasts. She switched from Hollywood costumes to specialize in wedding dresses when she moved to Maui in 2001, where she’s also volunteered with several nonprofits.
When the pandemic closed her dressmaking business, Oberg put out a call on Facebook on March 18 for doctors who might help her figure out how to replicate an N95 mask, which has a close facial fit and efficiently filters airborne particles.
The next day, Maui dentist Dr. Sonia Gupta put her in touch with Russell Van Dyken, husband of Dr. Irminne Van Dyken of the Kaiser Permanente Wailuku Medical Office. Russell Van Dyken had been trying to figure out how to make the N95, and on March 20 he met with Oberg at her studio.
Van Dyken reverse-engineered the N95 mask, and though they were unable to exactly reproduce it, Oberg began making prototypes of the closest they could manage. Doctors at the Kaiser Maui Lani clinic liked one of their prototypes well enough to give them the go-ahead to make more.
Meanwhile, Oberg had been posting updates on her Facebook page, and “people just started jumping on board,” she said.
On March 21 the project received its first donation of $1,000. The next day, someone pledged $5,000. In short order the project had a place to set up shop, at the Upcountry private school Seabury Hall, which had shut down due to the pandemic. Classrooms there had just been deep-cleaned and could be kept sanitary for mass production.
“As soon as somebody told us about it, we just said yes right away,” Seabury Head of School Maureen Madden said. “This is a great thing and an opportunity to do anything we can to save lives. It’s such an inspiration for the kids to see this, even virtually.”
The project team grew quickly. Kathy Baldwin set up a GoFundMe page seeking $20,000, with the goal of making 10,000 masks. It raised more than $21,000 (including the earlier $5,000) in two days.
Baldwin is now project co-leader, assisted by Lynn Rasmussen. Kimber Carhart works on fundraising, Julie McMillan organizes volunteers, Kim Abrahamson solicits lunch donations for the volunteers, Debbie Benson continues to source materials, Jeneill Smith runs errands and Caroline Crumlish is manufacturing assistant, on-site six days a week with Oberg.
Mike Gagne does deliveries; the first 50 masks were delivered to the Kaiser Maui Lani clinic on Monday.
A Kaiser spokeswoman had no comment about this particular project, noting that “while the CDC does not consider homemade masks to be effective personal protective equipment (PPE) inside our clinical environments or for those caring directly for people with COVID-19, staff members in nonclinical areas may use their own personal masks,” which will “help ensure critical PPE is available where needed.”
With so many people trying to fill the PPE gap by making their own masks, finding materials such as elastic and foam was a challenge, but the project has been up and running since March 25.
Each day, the team disinfects tables, chairs, sewing machines and other equipment in five Seabury classrooms. Volunteers follow a careful protocol; wear gloves, medical “scrubs” and masks; and sit at least 6 feet apart. Some cut pieces for several layers of nonwoven material, including dual filter material and an outer layer, impermeable to fluids, made from a surgical gown or sterilization wrap.
Others sew the layers together and add wire and elastic ties. About 15 volunteers have showed up each day, but more are needed. It’s a slow project, compared with machine production, but Oberg and team continue to fine-tune the process, hoping to provide some protection from the COVID-19 wave expected to hit Maui within weeks.