'Everybody wants to help': Designers, apparel companies pivot to help health-care industry fight COVID-19

Companies worldwide are pivoting to aid in the fight against COVID-19 — including the apparel industry. Designers are shifting from their usual sartorial creations to rapidly producing masks, gowns and more.

'It really has been just amazing to watch everybody just sort of come together,' says hospital foundation head

The fashion and apparel industry is among those pivoting to aid in the fight against the coronavirus, with companies and individuals purchasing and donating medical-grade protective gear and shifting from their usual sartorial creations to rapidly producing masks, gowns and more. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Like many, Hilary MacMillan has been glued to the news amid the coronavirus pandemic. But when the Toronto fashion designer began seeing stories raising the alarm about a shortage of masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment, she was moved to action.

"We wanted to kind of get on the ground and see if it's something we could help out with, before it gets to the point when there's nothing available," said the womenswear designer.

After just a few days of work this past week, MacMillan and her two seamstresses (who were each sewing from home) completed 100 non-medical grade masks, with the initial batch headed to staff at a local pharmacy. An organization representing in-home personal support workers has been in touch about next week's batch, with MacMillan aiming to produce 100 a week for organizations requesting them.

"What we're trying to do is create masks for the vulnerable and other workers who have nothing available," MacMillan said.

"It's nice to keep busy. It's nice to feel like we're not just watching, but that we're helping out."

Toronto fashion designer Hilary MacMillan has temporarily shifted from creating her eponymous womenswear line to making and donating non-medical grade masks for use by a variety of groups, including grocery store staff, pharmacy workers and in-home personal support workers. (Ted Belton/Hilary MacMillan)

Around the globe, companies of all stripes have been pivoting to aid in the fight against the coronavirus, from distilleries producing hand sanitizers to auto parts manufacturers and vacuum companies exploring how to make ventilators. 

The apparel industry has also joined in. Companies such as luxury house LVMH and Canadian underwear brand Knix purchased and donated medical-grade protective gear to health authorities.

And everyone from retailers H&M and Gap to designers like Ralph Lauren and Prada to outerwear brand Canada Goose is shifting from their usual output to rapid production of masks, gowns and more. 

'You can't wear the same equipment all day'

For health-care workers, personal protective equipment (PPE) provides a barrier between health-care workers and potential sources of infectious diseases. It includes items such as gloves, gowns, lab coats, shoe coverings, goggles, face shields and more.

Used in conjuction with specific infection control procedures, PPE is a vital resource. But amid the coronavirus pandemic, PPE is being rapidly sapped as front line health-care workers cross paths with, test and treat thousands of people.

"You can't wear the same equipment all day. This is why they go through a lot of [PPE] because they have to change it between patients," said Jan Chappel, senior technical specialist at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

You don't want to bring the disease to the next patient and the next.- Jan Chappel, of Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety

"You don't want to bring the disease to the next patient and the next," she continued, adding that PPE would need to be worn by anyone coming into contact with an infectious disease patient — from doctors and nurses to cleaning staff making the rounds.

Workers inspect newly made surgical masks in a factory in Hong Kong. Personal protective equipment used by front line health-care workers must be certified by groups like the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Canadian Standards Association. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images)

Must use specific materials

There are also specific standards behind the production of PPE, which is regulated and must be certified by agencies, like the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Canadian Standards Association.  

Take for example the N95 respirator, which is part of the PPE being used by front line medical staff during the COVID-19 outbreak. These devices must be fitted properly and are "made with a very specific material," Chappel said. 

"These are [masks] that you wouldn't be making at home with a regular cotton fabric. It's a very specific type of fibre.… Particles become attached to the fibre, so it doesn't get through the mask and [aren't breathed in by] the person wearing the mask."

Companies shifting their production to making PPE must use the right materials and go through proper certification, she emphasized, saying that it may be easier for some manufacturers (for instance Bauer's temporary shift from hockey masks to face shields) to retool their production lines.

Manufacturers around the world have been retooling their facilities to help meet the demand for protective equipment for health care workers. Here, Kvassy Huffman sews hospital masks at Detroit Sewn in Pontiac, Mich., which normally makes clothing. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

Making community appeals

The need for PPE by health-care workers around the globe is a real concern, according to Mitze Mourinho, president of Michael Garron Hospital Foundation.

"There's a huge need in the system and around the world. [Every hospital or health-care facility] is drawing on the same supplies."

For instance, with ballooning cases in populous U.S. states like California and New York, "they've really drawn on supplies worldwide," Mourinho said.

"[In Canada], we are going into our peak period over the next number of weeks, so we and other … hospitals need to make sure we have the right supplies internally and that they keep coming during this difficult period."

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, hospitals worldwide are vying for the same kind of protective gear, including masks, N95 respirators, gloves, face shields and long-sleeved gowns. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

To that effect, like some of their peers across Canada, Michael Garron Hospital kicked off a PPE drive early this week, calling for donations of unopened, unexpired equipment from veterinarians, dentists, other health professionals and wider industry players who use the same items. 

The Toronto hospital's appeal sparked a tremendous response beyond just donations of the items requested, Mourinho said. Staff also got a flood of other offers — for everything from 3D-printed visors and masks to movie production trailers, storage bins and delivery trucks — and suggestions.

Among them was the idea to call out for homesewn masks — not for front line health-care providers, but for others who might require or desire a basic face covering.

That could mean visitors coming into the hospital (though visitors are severely limited at the moment because of the outbreak), as well as patients being discharged from the hospital and reintegrated into the community, Mourinho said.

In January, the World Heath Organization recommended against the use of cloth masks, which when compared to medical-grade masks are not effective at blocking viruses. In the U.S., the Centres for Disease Control has suggested homemade masks as a last-resort for health care workers dealing with coronavirus if no medical-grade masks are available.  

Heartened by the public outpouring

Coupled with other measures — including being worn (and removed) correctly, washed daily, strictly following physical distancing measures and thorough, frequent hand-washing — she feels these masks can be useful for those who may not currently be high priority for medical masks. 

They could also aid in freeing up incoming batches of PPE to go specifically to the frontline healthcare workers dealing with COVID-19.

Depending on how many of the two-ply, homesewn masks are received (a website sharing instructions notes that all donations will be examined and initially cleaned at the hospital), extras could also be redistributed for use by the wider community.

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Overall, Mourinho is heartened by the public outpouring amid the pandemic, whether it's the countless messages thanking and supporting health-care workers, the boost in donations to hospital emergency response funds or the "phenomenal" sight of how businesses have pivoted to lend aid. 

"Everybody wants to help. That's the overarching message," she said. "It really has been just amazing to watch everybody just sort of come together."

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