When the new coronavirus emerged in Colorado, the Denver Sheriff Department knew it would need protective masks to limit the spread of the illness in the close quarters of its Downtown Detention Center and in the larger Denver County Jail on Smith Road.
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Disposable surgical masks donated by the Denver Health Foundation filled the immediate need, but cloth masks — which can be washed and reused — offered a more sustainable solution. Some were available through the Colorado Correctional Industries, a division of the state Department of Corrections.
But the sheriff department also found help from a less conventional, but remarkably effective, source.
Recently minted grassroots groups, with names like Dena’s Mask Making Army and Mask Mavens of Lakewood, joined established charitable organizations in responding quickly to the department’s call for help. They and others — from nonprofits to individuals eager to chip in — continue to churn out masks for at-risk populations to blunt a pandemic that could extend well into the future.
They also illustrate how motivated helpers, fidgety under a stay-at-home order, can step into a crisis and become instant problem-solvers, providing much-needed resources for health care workers, emergency workers, counselors, social workers and the homeless. Jail inmates, facing heightened risk of getting the virus and transmitting it even beyond their cells, also have benefited from an impromptu supply chain forged by social media and simple word of mouth.
Carrie Stanley, the sheriff’s department’s director of inmate programs, emailed the more than 90 organizations and contractors who pass through the doors of both the Denver lockups — and the project took off.
“It was definitely more of an organic effort,” Stanley said. “Some organizations had masks ready to go. But the other thing we recognized is this need is going to last for an unknown amount of time, and we wanted to make sure we had some sustainable options as well.”
The Mask Mavens, a group of volunteers who coalesced via social media around the need for masks for health care workers and first responders, kicked in the first 1,100. Retired Lakewood attorney Kendra O’Neil launched the effort that had 68 volunteers at its peak — including a 99-year-old woman who remembered folding bandages with her mother to aid the medical effort during World War II.
“As the story cropped up about other places in need — nursing homes, jails — I’d channel some in that direction to help fill that need as well,” O’Neil said.
The group has scaled back somewhat because several volunteers have returned to work. And now, she’s getting calls from doctors’ and dentists’ offices who donated their personal protective equipment when they were shut down and find themselves short upon returning to practice.
“So I’m providing them,” she said. The group so far has donated nearly 7,000 masks. “Whoever has a need, we’re fulfilling that need. Especially when you hear about hotspots developing, whether it’s at nursing homes, meat packing companies or jails. It’s important to help those facilities as well.”
Others also have continued to fill the pipeline. Individuals, from members of Alcoholics Anonymous, to a retired interior designer who churns out masks from her Capitol Hill residence, to sober living communities learning to sew specifically for the effort, have mobilized toward the goal of producing 3,000 to 4,000 masks for the jails — roughly three for each of the approximately 1,100 inmates.
The jail population is at a historic low due to early releases designed to lessen the chance of transmitting the virus and allow for greater social distancing in an environment not exactly built for that. About 70% of the inmates have not been convicted of their current charges and wait for their cases to move forward.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Downtown Detention Center held 58 inmates who have tested positive for the coronavirus and 35 who are in isolation with symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, a jail spokeswoman said. They are being offered testing through Denver Health. Fifteen inmates who tested positive were released, and four who tested positive have recovered and remain in custody.
The Denver County Jail, by contrast, has only one inmate who tested positive for coronavirus. Two who tested positive were released, and there are no inmates in isolation with COVID-19 symptoms at the Smith Road jail.
The large disparity between the two sites reflects that the downtown facility holds many more inmates, as well as the fact that the downtown inmates are relatively new to the system. If they test positive, they’re kept downtown and treated there by Denver Health.
Average daily population totals for the combined facilities were 1,806 on March 1 and, as of Wednesday, 1,069. The difference reflects releases as part of the COVID-19 response involving several criminal justice agencies and Denver Health.
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Conditions of incarceration provide special challenges for keeping highly infectious disease at bay, and they reach beyond crowded quarters.
“We do have a higher risk population for a lot of communicable diseases,” Stanley said. “Part of that has to do with the amount of people who come into our custody who are experiencing homelessness. That creates an environment where there are a lot of unknown risk factors.”
Allotting three cloth masks to each inmate allows for a fresh one while others are being washed and also provides one for each inmate upon release.
One of the major contributors so far to the Denver jail, with 500 masks, has been Dena’s Mask Making Army, an effort begun by Dena Mehling of Broomfield. It started as the simple fulfillment of a request by a doctor friend who knew she sewed and asked if Mehling would make a few for the doctor’s staff.
Mehling, an architect by training who runs a soap and body products business, pulled in some friends and created a separate Facebook group. Then it exploded. The army now has more than 1,000 members who have distributed more than 25,000 masks, filling requests from a wide variety of groups — including 500 masks for the Douglas County jail and some for an out-of-state jail where one of the volunteers works.
“I’m an avid news-watcher,” Mehling said, “and I felt a lot of the news focused solely on hospital workers. Places like long-term care facilities and nursing homes were about to be hit hard as well. Then we got requests from senior centers and places with at-risk populations, like the homeless and inmates. Viruses don’t care who you are. So it was a good way to do what we could.”
Initially, the group dubbed itself Dena’s Mask Bitches. But when it started expanding and attracting some media attention, Mehling figured maybe she should adopt a less cheeky name.
“At first, we used the hashtag, #SewBitchesSew,” she said. “A lot of people felt empowered by that. I thought I was just being snarky, but it kind of became a term of endearment. I was a little bit sad to see it go.”
Carol Peeples also felt the need to answer the call for masks. A former teacher who became founder and director of Remerg.com, a website that connects people released from incarceration with resources to resume productive lives and reduce recidivism, the Denver jail’s request was right Peeples’ wheelhouse.
“I said, “I sew, let’s see what I can do,’” Peeples said. “I started calling people a week ago Friday — folks I know — and looking at fabric costs.”
First, Peeples looked around her residence adjacent to Cheesman Park. An effort had been underway among those living in the building to make masks for their neighbors, and that’s where Peeples connected with Inge la Cour, a Danish immigrant who had learned to sew as a child, but whose machine had been gathering dust.
La Cour, who moved to the U.S. in the late 1960s and eventually became an interior designer, pulled it out of storage and teamed with another resident to sew about 50 protective masks for others in the building. When Peeples asked her if she’d be interested in continuing to produce them for inmates at the jails, she was eager to keep her project rolling.
“So many people are involved in helping other people in this coronavirus,” said la Cour, who still has wisps of her native accent after more than 50 years in the U.S. “I love that I’m a small part. And doing these for the jail, every time I finish a mask, I think, well, it’s really going to help someone.”
Peeples also turned to a group she’s worked with on other projects, Hazelbrook Sober Living — a string of seven facilities that help men and women recovering from substance abuse maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Director Geno Shvedov already had involved the organization with procuring disposable masks for parole officers, detox centers and reentry facilities. But making the reusable cloth masks for the jail inmates struck a chord with the residents, both male and female.
“I thought the cause itself was really cool,” Shvedov said. “That’s our mission. We work closely with people coming out of incarceration, homelessness and addiction. Being locked up, some of them already know what it’s like living in close quarters. We thought we could definitely help out.”
John Klinghammer, a former Hazelbrook resident and now peer recovery coach, is all too familiar with the conditions that put inmates at particular risk for contracting the virus.
“I’ve personally been locked up and the facilities and resources to sanitize are few and far between,” Klinghammer said. “They totally lack in the area of sanitation, and it’s concerning to me that inmates are subject to those variables.”
Armed with good intentions, the residents needed only two things: sewing machines and, for most, the knowledge to use them. They searched some local retailers for inexpensive machines, but struck out as they discovered that the stay-at-home order had put them in high demand.
So they turned to Amazon and ordered one online, so they could at least get started. It arrived on Tuesday evening.
But there was still the hurdle of not knowing how to sew.
That’s where Peeples stepped back into the equation, with an offer to teach them.
Klinghammer said he took a couple of crash courses years ago but needed a refresher. Reaction from other residents at his Aurora facility was enthusiastic, with one caveat. “A lot of guys were blunt and said they had no idea what they’re doing,” he said, “but they’d love to help.”
Next, Peeples went shopping for fabric. She found a small local store in Denver’s Baker neighborhood called Trelotta that gave her “a screaming deal. The best I could find.” From her own pocket she purchased dozens of yards of material. Whenever she receives her coronavirus stimulus check, she said, that also will go toward material for the masks.
“Since then, it’s been people reaching out, the power of connections,” Peeples said. “It’s all been like that. Delightful.”
La Cour has had to put off a planned trip to Denmark, and so she has busied herself by diving into the project. On average, it takes her about 20 minutes to produce a mask.
“It’s Sewing 101,” she said. “I have my little studio here, with a balcony to the park. I can’t just sit and read books all day long. I just think it’s a very strange time we’re living in, and we all talk about it. I’m obsessed with this.”
Although the jail’s immediate goals have been met, it will continue to accept donations while waiting to see the impact of measures the state has taken to slow, and eventually halt, the coronavirus.
“We absolutely have enough donations right now to meet the need,” Stanley said, “but I’m asking for some in addition to what we’ve already received so we have plenty on hand both for now, as well as anticipating we may have needs throughout the rest of the year.”
Meanwhile, Mehling said her army is slowly drawing down its operations, now that the overall mask supply is catching up with what, for a stretch, was overwhelming demand.
“Our original mission was just to bridge the gap,” she said. “Everybody has done this out of the goodness of their heart. Everybody feels comfortable that we did what we could to get through this hump.”
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