Montana Silversmiths assembling masks in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.
Volunteers in Montana assemble masks printed by Montana Silversmiths. Photo courtesy of Montana Silversmiths

Western Performance Horse Vendors Step in to Fill Mask Shortage

The last time we confronted a black swan event in terms of epidemic was more than 100 years ago, in 1918, with the deadly Spanish influenza.

A report in the Fort Worth Star-Telegramsounded awfully familiar to the current events of COVID-19.

“In answer to the Red Cross emergency call for aid in the Spanish influenza fight, women of the local Red Cross chapter responded nobly Sunday. 

“Knowing that the health of physicians, orderlies and nurses lay in their hands, more than 120 women sat around the surgical dressings tables and worked all day Sunday.

“Primarily to protect the hospital workers against Spanish influenza, the gauze masks have been asked for in great numbers.

“So urgent is the need that the masks were sent to Camp Bowie as rapidly as they were completed.

“More workers are needed daily.”

History teaches and history rhymes.

To no surprise, many in the Western performance horse community have jumped at the chance to pitch in to help now, ensuring no one walks alone.

Two have answered the call to shoring up a shortage in masks.

Amelia Elbert was one of those, using her talents as a seamstress to make and donate 37 masks for the medial professionals at a nearby clinic in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

Amelia Elbert’s handiwork. Photo courtesy of Amelia Elbert

The friend, a physical therapist had approached Elbert about her making and selling the masks to the clinic.

“I said, ‘no, I’m not going to charge you to make masks,’” Elbert said. “It was something [sewing masks] I had never done before.”

For 25 years, Elbert has operated Amelia’s Show Apparel designing custom show clothing for horse shows, though in recent days, before the the coronavirus outbreak, the business has operated on a “small scale.” Elbert made a choice to follow different pursuits.

On a larger scale of assistance was Montana Silversmiths.

The company answered the call of the need to produce masks with its 3D printers.

A doctor, a dentist and the dentist’s son in Billings, Montana, created a template for 3D masks.

“Currently, we are printing between 10 and 15 masks a day,” said Judy Wagner, a spokeswoman for the company. “Once the masks are produced they are delivered to local medical facilities for quality inspections and for dispersal within our community agencies.”

Montana Silversmiths also are cutting the material for face shields on its water jet machine, usually used for cutting buckle and jewelry shapes. The company partnered with the Tint Factory in Billings.

Printing the plastic mask takes about three hours. The mask closely resembles a gas mask without the filters on each side. Dr. Dusty Richardson, a Billings neurosurgeon and co-creator, told Montana Public Radio that the masks can use N95 respirator filters or a single surgical mask can be cut up into six filters.

The doctors have shared the design online for others to use and perhaps others to improve.

“It’s a creative solution to a bad problem,” said Richardson on Montana Public Radio. “I wouldn’t claim that it’s a perfect solution. I wouldn’t claim that it couldn’t be improved upon, and that’s why we included the files out there so that people, engineers, companies are able to help to solve the shortage.” 

Each mask costs about $1 to produce.

According to the Montana Public Radio report, Flowmark Hitech Filters Company in Billings made 200 filters to kickstart production for the prototype. A company spokesman said it could manufacture as many filters as needed and has already fielded orders from across the country.

In another part of the state, Karen Searle, like the ladies of the Red Cross more than 100 years ago in Texas and elsewhere, organized efforts to sew reusable masks with other volunteers in Gallatin County.

“Montana Silversmiths is inspired by the people across the country making sacrifices, small and large, to help their neighbors,” said the vice president of marketing at Montana Silversmiths. “Our communities will face many challenges ahead, and all efforts to help and emerge stronger than before must start in our backyards.”

With no prototype to use, Elbert, in her home in Liberty Mound, Oklahoma, went to the Internet looking for how-to’s.

With the pattern in hand, she cut the fabric one night and sewed the next day, a total of about eight hours in all, she said. The fabric and elastic she used was all leftover from other projects, she said, turning trash to treasure. 

“I didn’t think a fabric mask would do any good,” Elbert said, but the masks are actually being used to wear over the top of medical masks, making those reusable, something imperative for the times. The fabric maåsks can be washed and reused as well.

As it turned out, Elbert’s therapist friend and Elbert had mutual friends at the clinic that neither knew about. So, Elbert’s masks were unknowingly going to other friends.

“That was a really neat thing,” Elbert said. “They were sending pictures of themselves in my mask.”