SOUTHWEST WISCONSIN - A group of 35 local citizens armed with sewing machines, irons, cars and a can-do spirit in Vernon, Crawford, Richland and Grant counties has been making a big difference in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. They have been doing this by sewing masks and donating them to health care workers and first responders. As of Tuesday, April 21, the group has made and donated about 6,000 masks.
Sewers of Southwest Wisconsin is a diverse group that includes not only sewers, but ironers, delivery drivers, and people who machine holders to relieve healthcare workers with sore ears from the elastic bands that hold their masks on. The masks are distributed to hospitals, clinics, dental clinics, pharmacies, nursing homes and first responders.
So far, the group has donated masks in Crawford, Vernon, Richland, Grant, Sauk, Iowa, Juneau, Jackson, LaCrosse, Dane, Milwaukee, Rock and St. Croix counties.
Movers and shakers
Group coordinator Angie Salmon is a high-powered and dynamic woman, who also manages dental clinics in Richland Center and Boscobel. In addition, she is homeschooling her children during the school shutdown, and has been driving her mother to her chemotherapy appointments. Salmon credits health care worker and Viroqua resident Becca Clason with the group’s inspiration.
“Becca reached out to my aunt, Jackie Fortney-Getter, about the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) available in her unit at work in at Gudnersen Lutheran in LaCrosse,” Salmon explained. “My aunt called me up, I started a Facebook page to recruit other sewers, and the effort was off and running.”
Clason herself expressed thanks for the efforts of the group. She said that she encountered the critical shortfall of PPE in her own department where staff were issued one N95 mask and were asked to sanitize and reuse it. She herself was gone on the day the masks were handed out and did not receive one.
“I saw a group in Vernon County making masks, and asked my manager if that was something we could use,” Clason said. “My manager said yes, but that particular group was only making masks for Vernon County, so Jackie called Angie, and pretty soon the group was making masks for workers all over the region.”
Clason reports that originally her request had “come from a place of fear.” That is because Clason’s son suffers from a very serious illness that makes him more vulnerable to the virus. Like many healthcare workers, she was afraid that she could bring the virus home to her loved ones without adequate protection.
Jackie Fortney-Getter reports that when she heard about Becca’s need, her heart went out to her, and she sat down that very weekend and began to sew masks. She has continued to sew masks every weekend, with a lot of help from her husband Roger Getter who does all the prep work for her during the week while she is at work. Roger is retired from the Vernon County Highway Department.
“Angie is a real go-getter that has made a great contribution to the success of our group,” Fortney-Getter said. “But there are many other people that are doing the work too, like Dorothy Kanable from Richland Center, and her friend who helps with the deliveries.”
Fortney-Getter has been involved in the last six years with a project called ‘Operation Warm.” Fortney-Getter crochets hats, sells them for $20, and then uses the proceeds to purchase winter coats for children whose families can’t afford them.
“I thought to myself, if we can do that, then we can come together to make these masks,” Fortney-Getter said. “And Operation Warm taught me that there are many fine people in the community that will help if they believe the cause is a good one.”
Personal protective equipment (PPE) remains the top resource concern for hospitals across Wisconsin amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Wisconsin Department of Health Services officials said at a press briefing on Friday, April 17. Underscoring the need is data newly released from the Wisconsin Hospital Association, which estimates that many hospitals in the state show less than a seven-day supply of critical gear like face masks, face shields, gowns, gloves and more.
“I was absolutely appalled to learn of the critical shortage of PPE available to health care workers in the state,” Salmon said. “Workers are being issued one mask per day and being told they must sanitize and reuse masks that are not meant to be disinfected.”
Like Clason, Salmon was especially concerned because of her mother who is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. She said it was this experience, as well as talking with Clason, that propelled her forward in her efforts.
In an interview with the Independent-Scout, group member Fortney-Getter wanted to reinforce that “the need for masks is a crying need, and I know that there are many, very fine people in our community that will step forward if they know it is a good cause.”
“One of the things I’ve been able to contribute is that I know a lot of good people, from work, from my church, that will respond if I ask for help,” Getter said. “It’s pretty heart warming, when I start to feel desperation, and doing this work makes me feel good – like I have a little more control over what is happening.”
A diverse team
Salmon seems very proud of the diverse group she has put together to address the needs for PPE in the area.“We have 18 drivers that includes members of the Vernon County Sheriff’s Department,” Salmon said. “They deliver finished masks as well as supplies to our sewers and ironers across the area.”
One of the people that Fortney-Getter said needs to be particularly recognized is Roy Torgerson of the Vernon County Sheriff’s Department. Torgerson has stepped up to drive fabric and materials to sewers, pick up masks and deliver them, and recruit new sewers.
“Vernon County Sheriff John Spears was a highschool classmate of mine, and when he heard about what we were doing, he called me up and told me his department stands ready to assist,” Fortney-Getter said. “We wound up asking Roy Torgerson, who is the department’s liaison to the Amish community to see if they would help us sew, because I know there’s a lot of talented seamstresses in their community.”
Salmon said that the most drivers they’d had out on the road was six one Saturday. In addition to sewers and drivers, the group also has ironers. These volunteers iron the pieces and the attachments so that the sewers can focus on their sewing.
“For the first three-and-one-half weeks our group focused exclusively on making masks,” Salmon said. “Now that we have gotten some of the basic demand at hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, nursing homes and first responders taken care of, we are branching out into scrub caps and gowns for nursing homes as well.”
Getter told a story of a hospital in Wauwatosa that their group had helped early on with masks.
“A woman called me and told me that her daughter managed an emergency care unit at the hospital there that had just been designated a COVID-19 crisis center, and they had no PPE, and she was very frightened for her daughter,” Fortney-Getter said. “Even though that hospital is far from our area, when I heard the fear in that mother’s voice, I determined that I, myself, would sew the 50 masks she was requesting.”
Getter said the call came in on a Friday, she sewed the 50 masks over the weekend, and her friend Lisa Torkelson paid the shipping to get the masks there by Tuesday morning.
“In return, that mother bought and shipped up 40 yards of fabric that our group could use to make more masks,” Fortney-Getter said. “That’s the kind of thing that makes our group work, that spirit of giving.”
Another exciting breakthrough came in response to a challenge health care workers are increasingly experiencing – sore ears from wearing face masks held on by elastic bands. The group’s initial response was to make headbands with buttons sewn on, so the elastic bands could be hooked to the buttons instead of ears. But a shortfall in supply of buttons prompted an ingenious invention.Salmon’s cousin Jonathan Fortney is an engineering student at Viterbo University in LaCrosse. He said that if he could have access to a laser cutter, he believed he could make buttons very inexpensively. In the process he had a ‘Eureka’ moment, and realized that he could do better than just buttons by designing a plastic, multi-pronged clip that could be sewn onto a headband to hold the elastic in place.
“He was really lucky that the tech ed teacher, Carl Zube, at Viroqua High School was able to arrange for him to use the laser cutter at the school on a weekend,” Salmon said. “He has perfected his design and can crank out the clips for less than a penny apiece.”
The group has also received help from other generous people inside and outside of the community. A gentleman from Waunakee has a 3D printer, and volunteered to print itemswhich made the work of the sewers easier. Since then, the group has been able to source that service from the tech education teacher at the Riverdale High School and are in discussions with Kickapoo Area High School as well.
“Carol at the Quilt Shop in Viroqua has been very generous to allow curbside pickup of elastic, and friends and family have donated over $1,000 to the effort,” Salmon said. “In addition, we received a very generous donation from the Company Store in LaCrosse that provided us with fabric to make more masks.”
No end in sight
Salmon reports that until U.S. manufacturers can ramp up production of PPE to ensure essential front line workers an adequate supply, “there is no end in sight for need of the masks and other PPE our group and others like us can supply.”
Salmon said that in addition to the need of front line healthcare workers, there is also a need for PPE for people who work in factories.
“Catherine Anderson, whose job is to be the PPE coordinator at Vernon Memorial Hospital, says that once things reopen at hospitals and clinics, then there will be an even greater need for PPE for workers and patients,” Salmon said. “At the Hirsch Clinic in Viroqua, for instance, they typically will see 800 patients per day.”
When asked if the effort would remain “a labor of love,” Salmon reports that she had reached out to a hospital foundation in the area to explore being able to accept private sector donations under the foundation’s not for profit status. If such a mechanism were to be set up, that could really facilitate a needed expansion of their efforts.
“What we need people to know is that the need is urgent, and our group needs more help,” Salmon said. “It’s okay if you can’t sew – we also need ironers, delivery drivers and more.”Those interested in volunteering can find the group, or Angie Salmon, on Facebook at ‘Sewers of Southwest Wisconsin’ or ‘Angie Salmon.’