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From Boat Tarps To Face Shields: Chicagoans Are Finding Creative Ways To Get Hospital Workers The Supplies They Need

One woman's quest to make face shields led a North Side boating supply company to start making hundreds of them.

Chicago Marine Canvas employee Soren Chapman
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OLD IRVING PARK – The shortage of personal protection equipment like breathing masks, gloves and face shields among hospital workers has inspired both citizens and private industry to get to work.

From large corporations like 3M and General Motors making surgical-grade masks and respirators to individual crafters now sewing masks out of fabric, there are many examples of companies and citizens doing what they can to help the greater good — and on a level unseen since the American war effort of World War II  — and Chicago is doing its part. 

RELATED: Chicagoans With 3D Printers Unite In Isolation To Make Face Shields For Hospital Workers

Kris Nielsen, a mother of two from Old Irving Park whose sister is a nurse in Rockford, was reading an article about the shortage of face shields when she decided to try making them herself.

“I just had read an article about a hospital in Seattle that was putting out information for people who wanted to make their own masks and shields. I can’t sew, so I thought at least I could do shields,” Nielsen said. “I started calling and emailing suppliers of marine-grade vinyl sheeting. A bunch of them got back to me but Vince was local so I ran over,” Nielsen said, referring to Vince Innocenzi, owner of Chicago Marine Canvas at 4136 N. Kedzie Ave.

“He gave me a roll of it, but then we got to talking and he said, ‘This sounds like something I could put my employees back to work on and bang them out pretty quickly,’” Nielsen said.

Innocenzi said the idea appealed to him both because it would put his employees to work and because it something that is helping a greater good.

His company, Chicago Marine Canvas, doesn’t have any orders yet — because no one knew they were making them — but estimated he should have several thousand done by Monday. There are a few things to be worked out still, like FDA approval so hospitals can use them.

“Right now we are coming up with some different designs but have about 700-800 completed and will have 1,000 by Monday. We have another 3,000 waiting to be assembled,” Innocenzi said. “We’re looking into the FDA guidelines but believe they can be sold if they are classified as non-surgical.”

Innocenzi said they are making disposable and reusable shields, as well as a shield that can pivot up and down. 

“FEMA gave an example of one that’s out there that Medline manufactures. The one they are currently offering is very similar to what we are making. I guess the only difference is that we’re making them by hand,” he said.

Chicago Marine Canvas has three full-time employees along with Innocenzi, but employs more during the spring when the boat season rush begins. The state-mandated shutdown hurt his business, but this shift in focus is something that can keep them busy, and employed. Innocenzi said he’s also currently researching what to charge for the shields. 

“We really don’t know where to price it. We have our costs involved but I’ve also done some research online. It’s something  we are looking to the hospitals for guidance on. It would be nice to cover our costs, keep our lights on and keep our workers employed,” he said.

He’s reached out to several hospitals in Chicago and said he’s gotten good feedback and expects to have orders soon and once that happens, he’ll increase the amount of employees.

“They’ll get into the right people’s hands and won’t go to waste.”

‘We’re In This Together’

Like Kris Nielsen, Rebecca Zeni is an example of how one citizen can spark a mini-movement. Zeni, the owner of SciMath Education tutoring company, was motivated to reach out to Chicago-area schools and universities that have biology, chemistry and nursing programs to see if they would be willing to donate personal protection equipment to hospitals. 

In an email that she sent to several universities, Zeni said “Since classes have moved online for the time-being, essential resources like gloves, goggles, and masks are going unused at the school level. However, these items will have life-saving implications for hospitals.”

DePaul University and Elmhurst College wrote Zeni back, informing her that both schools are donating items, and while their efforts may not have been directly because of Zeni, she is hoping that other schools follow suite.

“I’m sure that hospitals would happily take whatever is not being used, especially since there are so many schools at the college level that already know that they are not going to resume in-person classes, and realistically, high schools may not resume either,” Zeni said. “It doesn’t have to go through me. I’m happy to try to coordinate it if they need it but if they just want to call their local hospital, I’m sure the hospitals will say ’sure.’”

In a March 24 newsletter article to students and alums, DePaul confirmed donating several items from its School of Nursing to local hospitals including 1,800 sterile gloves, 1,150 examination gloves, 350 biohazard bags, 200 gowns, 150 face masks and 45 face shields. Additionally, DePaul’s Theatre School donated face masks from its scene and prop shop.

RELATED: Have Masks, Gloves, Medical Supplies? Donate Them Sunday At The United Center

As for Elmhurst College, located in west suburban Elmhurst, college president Troy VanAken said “we have a real close relationship with Edward- Elmhurst Health in town and have a lot of our nursing clinicals there…and obviously we’ve heard the stories about the lack of supplies at hospitals so we basically let them know that we had some masks and gloves. The first thing we did was let them take all of our stuff from our teaching lab. We also gave about 22,000 pairs of gloves from our chemistry and biology departments and 15,000 gloves from our facilities department. We also gave masks.”

VanAken added that he has also talked about using empty residence halls to house hospital workers who may need to be quarantined from their families. 

“We’ll do what we can. We have a we’re in this together type of atmosphere,” VanAken said.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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