Coronavirus: Six degrees of mask making at UC Irvine shows the power of teamwork

May 8, 2020

Originally published in the Orange County Register

Let’s be honest: A lot of people are making protection-style masks these days.

But most of those mask makers aren’t medical experts. Most also aren’t making products that are actually usable in hospitals.

And few, if any, of those mask projects involve the blend of serendipity and organization as the mask making operation currently underway by people who work at UCI Medical Center in Orange.

Along the way, the UCI project has grown to involve dozens of people, in something akin to a six degrees of Kevin Bacon chain of benevolence.

Strangers no more

Until a few weeks ago, Melissa Chang and Aditi Sharma didn’t know each other. This was true even though both are doctors at UCI, Chang an anesthesiologist and Sharma a resident in dermatology.

But two months ago, the effort to fend off the spread of COVID-19, mainly by keeping people apart through social distancing, brought Chang and Sharma together. Now, they’re leading the UCI project to make high-grade, protective masks using sterilized material typically discarded at hospitals after one use.

But they’re just two key players in a growing project that’s producing thousands of masks, each with a filtering capability that nearly matches those hard-to-get N95’s that, during the pandemic, medical professionals desperately need.

At left is the mask made from Halyard H600 that has up to 86.5% filtration efficiency and at right is the mask made from Medline Gemini surgical sterilization wrap. The blue mask is more effective against COVID-19.(Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

There’s also the MIT filtration expert who, at the request of Sharma, tested the effectiveness of the material — stuff that’s usually used as the wrapping that keeps surgical instruments sterile before an operation.

Then there are the UCI hospital workers who’ve been tasked with infection prevention, managing the supply chain, and ensuring environmental safety.  They signed off on the process to store and maintain the special mask material, which has been collected and bagged by nurses at the request of Chang and Sharma.

There are others, too, from the UCI School of Engineering. They manufactured a mechanical device to cut the metal strips that provide a tight fit across the bridge of the nose. That’s been a blessing for UCI medical students who previously were using tools to hand-cut the strips.

There’s even Chang’s friend’s mother, a self-made immigrant entrepreneur who is confined to home these days and wanted to help out. She sewed 500 prototypes of the mask from a pattern that she helped devise to get a universal fit.

There’s another doctor, one who mentors Sharma. He put her in touch with a young woman who used to babysit his children but now runs her own apparel business. She was already making masks with her best friend from childhood, who also has an apparel business. The best friend got her mom, likewise in the industry, involved.

If that’s a lot of people — and it is — that’s because they’re making a lot of masks.

Over the next week, shops in Santa Ana will provide the mechanics and labor to churn out an initial run of 2,000 masks. Chang and Sharma want to bump that to 10,000 so they can outfit everyone at UCI Medical Center, from doctors to janitors.

And, dreaming bigger, the former strangers envision a way to engage poor people in third world countries to produce the masks for hospitals around the world. Those, too, would be made with the same recycled material from multiple sources.

“This could become the new universal masking alternative,” Sharma said.

But let’s back up a bit.

Crisis partners

As UCI Medical Center went into pandemic mode, Sharma and Chang were both spending a lot of time on their own, pondering the issue of how to supply health workers with appropriate masks. This, remember, was when governors around the country and leaders around the world were competing against each other for the coveted N95’s that in non-pandemic times are a standard part of medical personal protective equipment.

Donations of cloth masks made by people in the community were much-appreciated, but they aren’t actual protection against a viral contagion like the novel coronavirus. Numerically speaking, such fabric masks only provide 26.1% filtration, which is much less than the 95% to 99% filtration provided by the N95s.

So Sharma started poking around online to research potential alternative mask materials. She came across information about the filtration effectiveness of the Halyard H600 sterilization wrap — the stuff around surgical instruments. It’s plastic material created by melting and blowing out polypropylene that is treated with an electro-static charge.

The material and process, Sharma said, closely resemble what happens during the manufacturing of N95 masks.

Sharma said a month ago a research team at the University of Florida started researching Halyard H600 as an alternative material for medical-grade masks. Sharma took that idea a step further, and began looking for a lab that might be able to run some tests. In early April, Greg Rutledge, a filtration expert and chemical engineering professor at MIT, agreed to look at a batch of material she sent his way.

The Halyard H600 proved worthy, providing up to 86.5 percent filtration if used in a double layer, Sharma said.

Chang said she learned of Sharma’s investigations through a random email and connected with her. From her experience in operating rooms, Chang was familiar with the Halyard H600 material, and knew how it went to waste.

Chang worked on the logistics of getting UCI on board to let them collect and recycle the material. She also found someone to create the prototype — family friend Hong Daniel, an immigrant from Vietnam who lives in Laguna Niguel. Daniel has put four children through UC Irvine with the proceeds from various family enterprises that included a liquor store and a bakery.

Daniel is not a trained seamstress, but she has made clothes for her family. Eager to give back to the community, Daniel has “just been sewing away at home,” making the masks, Chang said.

“She’s a real hero.”

Ramping up

But to scale up their mask venture, professionals were required.

Enter Alana Stirdivant and Jenny Farrell. They’re friends who each run their own businesses in the apparel industry.

When the pandemic froze their enterprises, they switched to a joint effort marketing masks made out of fabric that Farrell’s swimwear company, OC Cutworks in Santa Ana, had in abundance. Those masks are sold on Stirdivant’s website,

Some dots needed to be connected. Farrell learned of the UCI mask project from a childhood friend, Jaclyn Meadows, the woman who once had been the nanny for the children of Sharma’s UCI mentor.

Together, Farrell and Stirdivant are underwriting the cost of making the UCI masks with proceeds from the sales of their swim-fabric masks. Her shop cut the recycled Halyard H600 fabric into stacks of 7-by-8-inch squares for the masks.

But Farrell hired another company, South Coast Sewing, run by her mother, Cha Sullivan, and brother-in-law Damion Roberson, to make the 2,000 masks. Her mom’s shop is two doors down from Farrell’s.

Farrell, who also attended UCI, said helping out on this project “feels amazing.”

“If I don’t have the money to donate … I love donating my time,  or just anything I can do.”