With N95s in short supply, Lafayette General is sourcing disposable masks from surgical wraps

Action Specialties employee Elston Touriac, who delivers masks daily to Lafayette General, along with owners Nancy Landry and Lenny Lipari (president) and Production Manager Michael Lipari. Photos by Travis Gauthier

On Monday every hospital worker at Lafayette General Health’s facilities in Acadiana will be wearing masks for protection from COVID-19. The policy change, a response to the ever-changing CDC guidelines for worker safety, comes as a collective sigh of relief for hospital workers who for the past few weeks have been concerned about unknowingly spreading the virus or being infected by the highly contagious disease. Every worker is now wearing a “walk-around mask” meant to protect themselves and others from inhaling coronavirus droplets (the CDC today recommended all Americans wear face coverings when in public settings). 

A lack of personal protective equipment — or PPE — has been a national concern, and an issue that local hospitals have watched closely. Sourcing more masks has been difficult given the national shortage, as manufacturers like 3M and Kimberley Clark have scrambled. Lafayette General Health has found its own local source: surgical wraps. 

Those professionals also look a little different these days in their more specialized particle filtering facepieces, the N95s you’ve read so much about.

As of today, Action Specialties of New Iberia has delivered a total of 7,000 masks to Lafayette General, disposable masks its seamstresses have been sewing to act as shields for the precious supply of N95s.

 “These are being used to help extend the life of N95s,” says Lafayette General Health spokeswoman Patricia Parks Thompson. 

Before this pandemic, many N95 respirators were tossed after a single use but are now routinely used for days and even weeks in some hospitals across the U.S. Unlike surgical masks that guard against droplets and large respiratory particles, N95s block at least 95 percent of even the smallest test particles.

Thompson says the hospital has taken to calling Action Specialties’ disposable shields the Cajun Coverup and just today approved them for an additional use. “The Cajun Coverup will also be used as a stand-alone in patient treatment areas,” she says. “It is equivalent to a Level 2 or Level 3 surgical mask.”

It was around mid-March when word of the shortages of personal protective equipment were blaring in national headlines on a daily basis. “We’re in the safety business, and we have lots of outlets to order from, but we couldn’t get anything,” says Karen Robison, Lafayette General’s central sterile processing and distribution manager. Like many of her colleagues, Robison was racking her brain for solutions when she realized one was staring her in the face. “We were actually opening up an operating room and we [unwrapped] an instrument,” she tells me. “It was right then and there that it hit me — if it protects the instrument, it’s going to protect me.” The blue sterilization wrap, made of paper and polypropylene, encloses instruments before they are placed into a steamer and keeps them sterilized for up to a year, acting as a barrier against moisture, dust and pollutants. “It was one of those ah-ha moments,” Robison says. 

With elective procedures on hold, the sterilization wrap was in good supply. Volunteer and student services manager Monica Guidry immediately put one of her volunteer seamstresses to work on a prototype and the hospital knew it was onto something big. But it needed way more than the volunteers could turn out. 

The first employee hired at Action Specialties in 1995, Lori Horn is the company’s monogram operator.

It would need tens of thousands, and it needed them to start coming in now. 

Marie Lukaszeski, the hospital’s director of design, planning and property property management, had already been contacting contractor friends about masks for patients coming into the Cancer Center for chemo. She’d met with Todd and Meg Mourain of Mourain Construction in early March about potential construction work at the hospital, and Meg called back a couple of weeks later to say she had a friend who might be able to help. Meg had gone to high school with Michael Lipari, whose works for Action Specialties, the industrial workwear and specialty products company his father Lenny co-founded in 1994 along with Craig and Nancy Landry. “Meg knew we had industrial sewers,” Nancy Landry tells me. 

Meg first contacted Michael on Sunday, March 22, the day before Gov. John Bel Edwards’ stay-home order would all but shutter the family business. On Tuesday morning, the business that employs 77 people would lock its doors to the public and open with a skeleton crew of 10 to respond to the small number of orders that were still coming in from oilfield, medical and electric companies, mostly for work clothes and boots. Orders for promotional products had already all but dried up.

When Michael, the company’s production manager, approached the company’s seamstresses on Monday about making the masks, everyone was on board. 

Sewing Department head Mary Celestine

Lafayette General had the material, the 54-inch-by-54-inch sterilization wraps that would need to be cut into 8-inch-by-8-inch squares. But there was a problem, Nancy Landry tells me. They had no way to secure the masks; elastic and similar material was nowhere to be found. “We almost had to can the whole project because there was nothing to use for tying it,” Landry says.

But Tuesday morning Michael had an idea. He reprogrammed a cutter the company uses for political signs to cut strips for tying the masks and met Robison and Lukaszeski outside of the hospital that day to deliver a prototype. They sent it back to New Iberia for revisions and Michael again returned with a sample. 

That very day, the project was a go. “We thought we had really done so well on Day 1, and we were so proud to bring them 150 masks,” Landry recalls. “And Karen said, ‘That’s nice, but I need 13,000.’”

The company’s machines are whirring eight hours a day, five days a week, able to turn out 8,000 disposable masks each week.

“These sewers are second to none,” Landry says, explaining that Action Specialties couldn’t be more grateful for the work. And that’s not because it’s necessarily what’s going to keep afloat the family-run business that has already lost as much as 60%-70% of its work to coronavirus. The company promised to keep everyone on the payroll for two weeks — and is looking for more guidance from the feds about how to continue supporting them — so those who are making this project happen aren’t in it for the money. “I don’t know if we’ll break even on it,” Landry says, noting that the work has really lifted everyone’s spirits because the company feels like it’s playing an important role now. 

“It came at a time when we had just shut our doors,” she says. “April is a month for so many events for us; in Louisiana the weather is so good. The Louisiana Open got canceled,” she says. “It’s a family business. Lenny has two of his sons working here, and we have two of our sons, so this little bit of help we’re able to do is so fulfilling for us.”

With the Cajun Coverups now coming in by the thousands weekly, LGH’s Robison and Lukaszeski have already turned their attention to a similar program for making polyester gowns that are impervious to droplets and have a certain level of fluid resistance to protect the clothing of nurses, respiratory therapists and physicians. They haven’t found the fabric yet. 

LGH’s Thompson is confident there will be a seamstress somewhere waiting to go back to work to make them. 

“This reminds me of the Cajun Navy, just in the form of seamstresses,” she says. “In Acadiana, we don’t wait for the help. We are the help.”