Bozeman, Montana has a population of 48,532, but just like big cities in New York and California, this small city in the southern part of the state has seen the demand for medical masks skyrocket.
Located in Gallatin County, Bozeman is home to more than one third of Montana’s confirmed COVID-19 cases, and is by far the hardest hit county in the state. As of Monday, April 6, there are about 299 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state and six deaths.
The need to help protect local doctors and nurses, and their patients, has inspired a brigade of volunteers to take action and start making professional-grade medical masks.
Health-care workers at Bozeman Health wearing donated masks.
Montana masks for heroes
“I guess you could say first and foremost, I’m in this because my daughter is a nurse supervisor at the Bozeman Hospital. She and her colleagues have their feet to the fire,” said local small business owner turned volunteer, Karen Searle.
Searle owns and operates Montana Bunkhouses, a company that connects travelers with hands-on ranch vacations, but after seeing the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on health-care workers in other cities, she put her hospitality business on hold to launch a grassroots mask-making effort.
Karen Searle is one of the lead volunteers who helped launch the Bozeman, Montana mask-making effort.
Searle teamed up with her daughter, Saundra Strasser, a registered nurse who supervises a team of nurses at Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital, and her colleague, nurse manager Rebecca Williamson.
The trio spearheaded design and development of a professional-grade medical mask, sourced materials, enrolled production partners, spread the word on Facebook and created a fundraising campaign on GoFundMe.
Medical masks made by volunteers for Bozeman Health in Montana.
Montana masks for heros
They researched mask guidelines put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and watched lots of DIY videos on YouTube before developing their own design that includes a small pocket that can hold a replaceable high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filter.
Bozeman Health said it took a few design attempts before the medical facility’s infection control specialists and patient safety leadership team greenlit a prototype and asked Searle to start pumping them out immediately.
“You have to understand we offered ‘beta’ and ‘go live’ all in the same breath,” said Searle.
Medical workers at Bozeman Health wearing masks donated by volunteers.
Montana masks for heroes
The response was brisk. Volunteers across the county immediately powered-up their sewing machines and started stitching together approved masks, one-by-one from their homes.
“I am grateful, deeply grateful, and I’m humbled by the heartfelt response of our community,” said Searle, who quickly realized that the at-home production model wasn’t enough.
“We so appreciate our volunteers, however, early on we recognized the demand for high-quality medical grade masks would exceed what volunteers could provide.”
Health-care workers on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic don’t need dozens of masks, they needed hundreds of them. To meet the demand, the volunteers enlisted the help of local businesses that could help scale production.
When Bozeman-based backpack manufacturer Mystery Ranch heard about the local shortage of medical masks, the company halted all other projects and focused on making masks by the hundreds. Mystery Ranch also donated precut anti-microbial fabric so others in the community could start producing masks with it as well.
“I’m ecstatic to the point that it brings tears,” said Mystery Ranch’s co-owner Renee Sippel-Baker on the company’s website. “What makes it even better is how happy all our employees are.”
West Paw, a pet product company that usually manufactures chew toys and dog beds, was a beneficiary of Mystery Ranch’s fabric donation.
CEO Spencer Williams said he’s dedicated a portion of West Paw’s factory and some of his 65-employee workforce to the fabrication of masks. It has already made hundreds of masks for Bozeman Health, but the goal is to ramp up production to a thousand per week, according to a company spokesperson.
West Paw’s dog product manufacturing facility now produces masks for healthcare workers.
“Having something good like making medically approved masks gives everybody a sense of hope and optimism,” Williams said.
“We would like to think that this collaborative effort could be replicated in other places,” Searle said.
The volunteers have already shared their design specs with people who want to help in their own communities from Mansfield, Texas, to Portland, Oregon, she said.
“We happily share our pattern. … We encourage them to mobilize volunteers and we tell them: ‘We are all in this together.”
Bozeman health-care workers wearing donated masks.
Medical Masks for Bozeman Health