Bethel dental clinic catalyzes community mask-making effort

Dental Assistant Apprentice Mikayla Kassaiuli sews a mask for medical providers in case protective gear runs out during the COVID-19 outbreak. March 26, 2020 in Bethel. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

Hospitals nationwide lack enough face masks to protect their healthcare workers from the coronavirus. Thankfully, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation doesn’t have that problem yet. No cases of the virus have been diagnosed in the region. To remain ahead of the curve, YKHC is distributing kits for community members to assemble masks.

When YKHC suspended elective dental procedures on March 18 to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the hospital’s dental staff suddenly had some extra time. They wouldn’t be seeing many patients for a while, and they noticed piles of a certain kind of light blue material lying around.

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“It’s a material that we use to wrap medical and surgical instruments in when we sterilize them,” explained YKHC Interim Public Relations Director Mitchell Forbes.

The material does not filter viruses and is no substitution for an N-95 mask. But it is medical-grade and used throughout the hospital. The dental staff wondered if could they use it to make medical masks. They found a mask pattern online, consulted with YKHC medical leaders on a design, and developed a prototype. 

After dental clinics were mandated to close for elective dental procedures, YKHC Dental staff put together a factory-like assembly line to make protective masks for doctors and nurses. Bethel, Alaska on March 26, 2020. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

“The masks now look like a normal, simple, surgical mask,” Forbes described. “It’s two sheets of this medical sterilization material sewn together, and the really nice thing about them is they’re made of material that does go into our sterilizer.”

Which is where the masks go after they’re made.

YKHC transferred sewing machines from its prematernal home to its dental clinic. A dozen dental assistants formed a factory line and began assembling the masks. Meanwhile, on social media, community members were asking if they could make masks for the hospital. The internet is filling with images of people sewing fabric masks, but YKHC is not accepting those and does not allow their providers to wear them. The woven cloth can harbor pathogens, and their effectiveness has not been proven.

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YKHC Dental staff sew masks out of surgical wrap after dental offices were mandated to close to elective procedures by the State of Alaska amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. March 26, 2020 in Bethel, Alaska. (KATIE BASILE / KYUK)

To harness this community energy, YKHC is supplying mask-making kits using its medical-grade material. Each kit can produce 10 masks and contains precut squares of the material, long strips to tie the mask around the head, and accompanying instructions. The most complicated part of the process is incorporating the mask’s three pleats. All the assembler needs is thread and a sewing machine.

Since the hospital is limiting visitors, the kits are available to pick up and drop off at Bethel Community Services Foundation at 1795 Chief Eddie Hoffman Hwy., Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The masks will be used as needed, likely on patients who come to the hospital or in village clinics with respiratory illnesses, Forbes says.

YKHC is also accepting donations of unused N-95 masks. To donate N-95 masks, call the YKHC Incident Command Center at 907-543-6275.

Dental Assistant Supervisor Lucy Patrick shows off a completed mask she and her team made out of surgical wrap. Despite mandated closures, YKHC Dental staff in Bethel are staying busy making protective gear for medical providers. March 26, 2020. (KATIE BASILE/KYUK)

Update: This story has been updated to say that the surgical material provided by YKHC to make masks does not filter viruses and is not a substitution for n95 masks.

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