With gold-standard N95 respirators in critically short supply at hospitals, underwear and T-shirt factories in the U.S. retooled this week to make cotton face masks so doctors and nurses will have some protection.
Companies from New Balance and L.L. Bean in New England to Gap in California are contributing to an ever-widening emergency initiative, the likes of which hasn’t been seen for 80 years. The effort offers a lifeline for the garment industry, its sales flattened by the pandemic.
Several underwear and T-shirt factories are working with the White House to supply masks for hospitals. HanesBrands Inc., which is supplying many companies, made material in the Dominican Republic, transported it to Miami in military planes and trucked it to American Giant’s factory in Middlesex, North Carolina.
Clothing manufacturer SanMar Corp. on Monday began giving employees mask-sewing training in its Knoxville, Tennessee, factory.
“This is our Manhattan Project,” said Renton Leversedge, a SanMar executive. “People are coming with all sorts of ideas on how to improve them. Everyone from upholstery sewers to grandma in her basement want to help.”
The Federal Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services helped configure the pattern used in the masks. The cotton masks aren’t recommended for use when treating coronavirus patients, but medical staffs are desperate.
Peter Navarro, President Donald Trump’s trade adviser, said the federal government will reimburse companies for their costs and distribute what they produce. HHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will buy the masks and distribute them to medical organizations immediately or use them to replenish the government’s stockpile.
The goal is to swiftly ramp up production to 10 million masks a week, according to the National Council of Textile Organizations. Garment factories are turning out three-ply jersey cotton.
It’s unclear how effective the masks will be in curbing the spread of the virus known as Covid-19, which can be transmitted through droplets when a person coughs. In some cases, doctors are wearing three-ply jersey masks over their N95 masks, so they can use the more heavy-duty ones longer.