Making Masks for the Masses

Visitors in hospitals, shoppers in stores, inmates in jail. You might see them all wearing free masks handed out by CHI Health.

“As a system, we had adequate supply of masks, but need was growing and we felt we should be proactive about protecting our communities,” said CEO Cliff Robertson, MD.

“We know wearing a mask reduces and prevents COVID-19, so this is the best tool we have and we need to help the public,” said Renuga Vivekanandan, MD, CHI Health Infectious Disease Specialist.

The team working on the reusable mask project had an early breakthrough: finding medical-grade material already in the supply chain. “This was a material we already use for surgical wrap for surgical sets, so it’s a multi-purpose material and it also had very good filtering,” said Greg Schardt, System Director – pharmacy mail order.

The team worked with industry partner AMI Environmental, an environmental health and safety consultant, to test the effects of washing the fabric on filtration.

Air was drawn through the washed masks at eight liters a minute, an average amount established by a CHI Health pulmonologist. Micron-sized particles were counted with a handheld laser particle counter.

“We did that to see if there’s a change in the filtration efficacy of the material,” said Daniel Taylor, President of AMI Environmental. “Measurements indicated that there wasn’t a remarkable reduction in efficacy.”

The team was ready to move the material into production. To find a local vendor, Schardt partnered with Bergman Incentives and reached out to the Latino Center of the Midlands. That connection led to Little Miss Fashion in South Omaha. Soon 11 local seamstresses were making thousands of CHI Health masks weekly.

CHI Health hands these masks out to visitors. “We knew we could use 10,000 a week for all of our facilities across the state,” he said.

A ready supply makes it possible to respond to community requests, such as when Hall County Corrections needed masks for inmates and staff.

“Our first 600 masks went there,” Schardt said. “These are quality, two-ply fabric masks. We know they can be washed many times and the quality of air filtration has been established.”

The masks have been handed out at several drive-up community events. Each mask comes with an instruction card explaining how to care for it.

CHI Health Masks

Renuga Vivekanandan, MD

Infectious Diseases