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‘We can step up.’ KY company switches production from Army gear to coronavirus masks.

Teresa Olivas prepares single face mask bags at Prep and Save store in Upland, Calif. on March 17, 2020. Customers scared of lockdown due to coronavirus cleaned out shelves carrying survival food, hand sanitizer and masks. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Kim Davis usually makes cloth patrol caps for the U.S. Army, but this week she’s getting a crash course in making masks to protect Kentucky’s first responders from the novel coronavirus.

Davis operates a sewing machine at Southeastern Kentucky Rehabilitation Industries (SEKRI) in Corbin, which produces a variety of products for the military, including caps, fire-retardant shirts and first-aid kits.

In recent days, however, the company shifted some production to cloth masks to help deal with a shortage of personal protective equipment for police, firefighters, ambulance crews and medical staffers — equipment they need to avoid getting sick amid the mounting number of cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus.

The risk of first responders being out of commission because of illness has been a concern.

Gov. Andy Beshear had been to a SEKRI facility when he was attorney general, and a staffer who remembered the company recommended that state officials check whether it could help with protective gear, said Leo Miller, the deputy executive director of SEKRI.

The company committed to making 275,000 masks.

It will likely take six to eight weeks to complete the order, but the company will begin shipping masks as it gets them done. The first shipment will go out Thursday, Miller said.

State officials didn’t say who will get the masks, he said.

The company and employees take pride in making products for soldiers on the front line, so making protective gear for use on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic felt like a continuation of that mission, managers said.

“This is just a natural transition where we can step up and help other people,” said Norm Bradley, executive director of the SEKRI.

The company was ahead of schedule on producing Army patrol caps so was able to shift some workers to the mask contract, Miller said.

Engineers at the company drew up four or five potential designs and SEKRI sent state officials samples.

The model they chose, called a droplet mask, consists of an outer layer of camouflage cloth and an inner layer of more lightweight cloth that would normally be used in the brims of caps.

Amid the whir of dozens of sewing machines on Monday, Davis was getting the hang of combining a square of camouflage material with the inner material, folding it top and bottom to make a rectangular mask, and sewing the sides.

The masks require more steps than her usual job.

“Once you get the rhythm of it, it’s not too hard,” Davis said.

From there, another worker would sew a stronger border on all four sides of the mask, and another would attach elastic bands to go behind the ears.

The plant is working to promote keeping a safe distance between employees. Mechanics had moved sewing machines to provide at least six feet of distance between operators before the mask order, and the workers were wearing masks and gloves as they sewed products.

Delena Mills, manager of SEKRI’s sewing plant in Corbin, was working with machine operators Monday to build production. The goal for the day was 2,000 masks, she said.

The company typically does time studies on producing items, but “right now we don’t have time to do a time study,” Miller said.

The plan is to refine the process on the fly if needed.

Mills said employees were getting up to speed quickly.

“Just comes natural, I guess,” she said. “When you got a crisis you work it, when you see those poor doctors and nurses just begging for something like this.”

The company had some camouflage material left over from making Air Force caps that it didn’t make anymore.

It is donating the material for the project and charging the state the cost of the labor, Bradley said.

Company officials deferred to the state for comment on the cost of the contract. State officials did not return requests for comment.

Local organizers started SEKRI in 1971 to provide jobs for people with disabilities. There were few job opportunities in the area at the time for people with disabilities, Bradley said.

The company is a non-profit and the main mission remains to provide employment for people with disabilities, but it has shifted from making furniture in the early days to being a military contractor.

The company makes some other products such as running apparel, but 85 percent of its production is for the military.

SEKRI has plants in Corbin, Cumberland, Harlan, Middlesboro, Pineville, Paris and Jellico, Tenn.

It has the potential to make gowns and may start providing those as well, but state officials said masks were the first priority, company officials said.

“Anything we can do to help out folks in a time of need, we want to do it,” Miller said.


© 2020 the Lexington Herald-Leader