56 Benicia mask makers have delivered over 3,000 hand-sewn masks

[Editor: in an email this morning Larnie Fox updated the numbers: “We are now at 56+ mask makers, and 3,157 gorgeous hand-sewn masks distributed to nurses, EMTs, doctors, ambulance crews, nursing home staff and other healthcare workers.”  – R.S.]

Benicia mask making group for health care workers reaches 50-plus members

By Galen Kusic, Editor, Benicia Herald, April 17, 2020
Health care workers at Alta Bates Berkeley Medical Center show off their stylish masks made by the Benicia mask making group, which now has over 50 members.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to decimate the United States with nearly 700,000 confirmed cases and over 31,000 deaths, the Benicia mask making group founded by Bodil and Larnie Fox is still going strong to protect health care workers on the front lines.

The Fox’s ingenuity and artistic creativity has started a movement in Benicia, with 51 mask makers having now distributed 2,727 masks to 28 health care facilities.

“You (all) have done an amazing amount of work, and there is little doubt that it is saving lives,” said Larnie in an e-mail to mask makers.

Here’s how it works: Bodil and Larnie have turned their home into a command center of sorts, with pick up and drop-off boxes in their front yard. When someone drops of materials, completed masks or anything else needed for this group effort, they sterilize everything and quarantine the item for 24 hours before getting ready to send the masks, fabric or elastic out to health care workers and makers.

The effort, which started as a simple request for masks from neighbor and Kaiser Vallejo registered nurse Marcella Spurgeon on March 20, has turned into a full-time job. Organizing, constant contact with mask makers, runners and people donating fabric and elastic is a non-stop process.

Health care providers at Piner’s Nursing Home in Napa show off their masks made by the Benicia mask making group.

No items are shipped, health care workers and designated runners come and pick up the disinfected final product and distribute them to health care workers around the greater Bay Area and beyond.

“It takes a bit of organizing,” said Bodil.

During the initial conversation, Spurgeon opened up about exposing the heartbreaking reality of health care workers fighting the pandemic due to a shortage of PPE and N-95 masks, a nationwide crisis. Workers may get one a day, or none at all. They are often forced to reuse them, which is why these cloth masks are so important to add an extra layer of protection.

“They (Fox’s) asked me how bad was it? I said if you have an N-95 you’re lucky,” said Spurgeon. “They asked what they could do for me and the next day they came back with about 25 sewn masks. They haven’t stopped since. I’m so thankful our conversation happened.”

While Kaiser was at first threatening discipline for workers using these cloth masks, as of April 2, the hospital has given the okay to use homemade masks over their own N-95 without fear of repercussions.

Aaron Newcomb of Benicia Makerspace has constructed three DIY face shields. Another 20 more are coming in to meet the needs of health care workers.

“I was on a mission to make sure all the bedside nurse units at the Family Birth Center had adequate masks,” said Spurgeon. “After reaching this goal of getting each person a mask, I brought some to each of the other units.”

Not even a month later, and Spurgeon has hand delivered over 1,200 masks to hospitals including John Muir Concord Campus, Cardiac ICU Walnut Creek, Santa Clara and Queen of the Valley in Napa.

“I feel so privileged to be a source to keep our front line safe,” she said. “Thanks to the mask makers and the Benicia community to make this possible.”

This effort has many facets and stories, each unique and equally important. As the mask making group grows, Bodil and Larnie have created a database with contact information and regular updates through e-mail and social media.

“We started out thinking we would just make a few masks for people, and now here we are,” said Bodil.

And the movement continues to grow, with more Benicia residents stepping up daily. The Fox’s note that the group will continue to churn out masks as long as there is a need.

Mask maker Melody MacKee with the finished product of masks ready to be delivered (after Bodil and Larnie quarantine them).

“We still need these made,” said Spurgeon. “I wish we could say that we’re fine, but we’re not.”

Benicia resident Ruby Wallis, a retired welder and pipe fitter created a video with a mask design that most mask makers are using. The two-minute video has been an imperative piece of the puzzle to make mask making easy and efficient.

After seeing the process on the Rachel Maddow Show on March 12, Wallis pulled out her sewing materials and fabric collection and started making masks. She was then linked up with the mask making group and made the video for everyone to follow.

“I just figured it out,” joked Wallis. “Everyone is so nice and we all work together.”

Mask makers have made an average of nearly 54 masks each. Some mask makers, like Benicia resident Melody MacKee, has sewn over 200 masks to date. She notes that seeing photos of health care workers wearing her masks is inspiring.

“I’m sewing as we speak,” MacKee told the Herald. “The video of how to make the masks made all the difference. While you can’t see their (health care workers) smile in the pictures, you can see it in their eyes.”

MacKee now makes masks in large sets, 16 to 32 at a time. She has created a production line of sorts to make the process quick and efficient to get the most masks possible made in a day.

“I’m a one woman factory,” she joked.

Bodil and Larnie Fox, founders of the mask making group with some of their self-made artistic masks.

Susan Bunch has been an integral part of the process as well. She knew Bodil and Larnie through Arts Benicia and has been working hard to help the effort. She explains that by working on these masks it gives a sense of purpose during shelter-in-place and passes the time knowing that these masks are for a noble cause.

“I have a fabric stash that I’ve been stockpiling for years,” she said. “Seeing health care workers get these masks, it really lifts the spirits of people. It feels really good. I’m going to keep making masks as long as they’re useful.”

Mask making isn’t easy and there have been many challenges along the way. A shortage of elastic, a main component of the mask making process is in high demand.

“Everybody is out buying 1/4” elastic,” said Larnie. “All of America is looking for it.”

Not to mention that endless hours at the sewing machine is hard on the back and can be mentally draining. But the mask makers push on. Mask maker and retired ICU nurse Elle Hands described the physical toll sewing for hours on end takes on the body.

“My lower back has been unhappy with me. Too much sitting at the sewing machine,” she said.

The search to gather all the needed materials is a main concern moving forward. Mask makers are having to use other materials to make masks that work.

More health care workers with Benicia-made masks.

“Only a few fabric stores remain open during this crisis,” said Hands. “On one trip, I pulled my number for service to have fabric cut. I was number 72. They were helping number eight. It would be a long wait while also social distancing.”

Hands and others are shocked that there are not enough masks or PPE to go around, which is why they are working so hard to help out health care workers in a dire situation.

“I’ve taken care of patients with serious infections. I know the importance of protective equipment. It shocks me they don’t have enough to meet the demand,” she said. “By creating these masks I’m offering them another layer of protection. This has been the most satisfying and rewarding part of this group effort!”

The mask making group now has three people who are making plastic ear guards to “save the ears of those who save our lives.” They have produced 111 of those, and 64 have been distributed.

Masks for a nurse that is Grateful Dead fan.

“They are very popular,” said Larnie. “Our nextdoor neighbor Darrell Lee started this ball rolling, and we are now also working with the Benicia Makerspace folks headed by Aaron Newcomb to get more.”

The group just acquired its first three DIY face shields made by Newcomb, and a batch of 20 is coming in soon from an old chorus friend, Beni Strebel from Sonoma County.

“We think there is a need for these,” he said. “We always try to find out what the nurses want – which is not always easy, because they are used to giving, not asking.”

Health care workers at Kaiser Permanente Vallejo.

Nurses report that facilities are steady, but nothing like New York. Many are in agreement that the swift action of Calif. government and individual’s dedication to social distancing has started to flatten the curve, as current data indicates.

“They’re the boss,” said Bodil of the health care workers. “We are trying to safely meet their needs. Everyone is working together, creating beautiful pieces of art. People are coming together and there are no politics. That’s really refreshing.”

Below is a list of all the health care centers that have received masks from the group to date:

• Alta Bates Herrick Center
• Alta Bates Oakland
• Alta Bates Berkeley
• Bay Medic Ambulance, Concord
• Children’s Hospital, Madera
• County Hospital Martinez
• EndoCare Walnut Creek
• John Muir Concord
• John Muir Walnut Creek
• Kaiser Antioch
• Kaiser Richmond
• Kaiser San Rafael
• Kaiser Vacaville
• Kaiser Vallejo
• Kaiser Walnut Creek
• Martinez VA Medical Center
• McClure Post Acute, Oakland
• Medical Hill Healthcare Center, Oakland
• Oakland Children’s Hospital
• Piner’s Nursing Home, Napa
• Sutter Peninsula
• Sutter Solano Medical Center
• Valley Children’s Hospital, Fresno
• Veteran’s Home, Yountville

(This article was updated for the online version. It was originally published in the April 15 print edition of the Herald)