Efforts will counter shortage in facial protection for medical professionals and patients
“Shoulder-to-Shoulder but 6 Feet Apart,” the Denver Center’s costuming artisans are busy answering the national call for crafty Americans to create desperately needed medical masks that are in short supply at hospitals and medical clinics because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When it became apparent late last week that medical professionals at every level are already facing a critical shortage of masks, the appeal went out to presently dormant theatre companies across the country to lend a hand. (And a needle and thread.)
DCPA Costume Crafts Director Kevin Copenhaver brought the idea straight to DCPA Director of Costumes Jan MacLeod, who thought it was, she said, “a fabulous way that we can all contribute right now.”
Within days of the initial overture, medical experts across the country had uploaded simple how-to videos and patterns for volunteer sewers to follow. Already a cleverly titled website called Sew the Curve Flat has been launched as a clearinghouse for what are considered the most current best practices, patterns and materials.
The DCPA team (all working individually using sewing machines in their own homes) is following guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control that say handmade masks that meet certain criteria are acceptable for making effective medical masks. In fact, prior to modern disposable masks, “washable fabric masks were standard use for hospitals,” said Dawn Rogers, a Nurse Practitioner from Deaconess Hospital in Evansville, Indiana. If the masks are sterilized, she said, they can be used repeatedly as needed.
“This makes me feel so much better than just hunkering down and not doing anything useful for humanity.” – Kevin Copenhaver
The tricky part of mask-making, Copenhaver said, is sewing the elastic that creates a cover for the wearer. Copenhaver already has improved on the original instructions, which call for elastic loops that go over the ears. “But some people have latex allergies and so we are using fabric ties instead.” He also has discovered that sewing narrow pip-cleaner strips in the lining over the nose makes the masks hug tighter to the face.
Copenhaver imagines the masks made by his team over the next weeks and months will most likely be put to use at medical clinics and offices. Many also will be made available to members of the public who have compromised immune systems, including patients waiting in doctors’ lobbies.
“We want to be clear that we are not making surgical masks,” Copenhaver said.
Top-of-the-line surgical masks, called N95s, are precious commodities right now, and are primarily reserved for surgeons because they can best block the respiratory droplets of coughing or sneezing patients — the principal way the virus is spread. But it just so happens that DCPA Theatre Company Technical Director Eric Moore has donated 75 N95s the DCPA Theatre Company had in stock. The DCPA keeps them handy in normal times, said Director of Production Jeff Gifford, to protect carpenters working in the shop. “In normal times they cost less than a dollar each and very common,” Gifford said. We buy in bulk because it is easier and more cost-effective. Once the current situation became clear, we felt it was more important to share those with health care professionals instead of sitting on our shelf.”
The masks being created by DCPA costuming staff will be made from two sources, primarily from 100 percent cotton scraps left over from dozens of Theatre Company productions throughout the years. The DCPA maintains a huge stockpile of fabric strips that are the ideal size for masks, which begin in 6-by-9-inch rectangles that are first bleached and washed.
“Whenever we pull a costume from stock and we have to alter it, we come here looking for the fabric we used,” MacLeod said of a ceiling-to-floor wall of fabric bins in the DCPA costume shop. “Some of that fabric might sit for years before it is needed again, so this a good way to put them to use.”
The other kind of masks DCPA artisans will be crafting will be made from polypropylene, a multi-use synthetic derived from the second-most commonly produced plastic in the world. In the medical community, Copenhaver said, “polypropylene is often used for wrapping surgical equipment because it is impermeable to most bacteria.”
MacLeod said her Denver Center team could ultimately produce hundreds if not thousands of masks for the cause, but Copenhaver emphasized the directive from the CDC is quality over quantity.
Copenhaver, a Denver native who has won most every award his profession has to bestow, has created some of the most beautiful costumes ever seen on Denver Center stages. But he also has a highly vulnerable 95-year-old father who lives in an assisted living community. And these simple masks, he said, might end up becoming the most meaningful creations of his career.
“This thing that’s out there doesn’t discriminate based on age or gender or sex or ethnicity,” Copenhaver said of the virus. “It is going after everybody. Sometimes I feel so helpless, but right now I do happen to have some skills that can help. And that makes me feel so much better than just hunkering down and not doing anything useful for humanity.
“I think if there is anything that any of us can do in our own ways to help, then it is incumbent upon us to try. Everywhere I look, I see people are stepping up, and that is great.”
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theatre critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
Video: How to make a medical mask