Pam LeBlanc (3-27-2020)
Austin-based SPIbelt, which makes waist belts with pockets to carry keys and other small items, is shifting gears to produce non-medical grade face masks during the novel coronavirus outbreak. The masks will be black, not polka-dotted.
SPIbelt is making “public-grade” masks designed to slow the spread of infection by preventing people from touching their noses and mouths, and by helping contain coughs and sneezes. If the general public uses this type of mask instead of medical-grade masks, it will free up medical-grade masks for professionals who need them, says SPIbelt founder Kim Overton.
“It just wouldn’t feel right if we didn’t do something,” Overton said by phone Friday. “We’re going to make as many as possible. We’re hoping we can do hundreds a day.”
Overton is also spearheading an exchange program, so anybody with medical-grade masks can exchange them for a SPIbelt mask at one of four Austin Emergency Center clinics around Austin.
“Every doctor in the country is short of medical-grade masks right now,” says Dr. Luke Padwick, founder of Austin Emergency Centers. “If this process achieves getting us N95 masks for our emergency rooms, then it is a huge win as far as I’m concerned.”
Non-medical grade masks don’t filter viruses, but are still useful for the public as barriers, Padwick says.
“Number one, all of us touch our face about 100 times a day without realizing it. When you’re wearing a mask, when you touch a handle or doorknob then rub your eyes, nose or mouth, (the mask) will prevent you from putting the virus in you,” he says.
The non-medical grade masks also create a barrier that reduce the likelihood of one person spreading pathogens to another through sneezing, breathing or coughing. “It contributes to public safety,” Padwick says.
Separately, Overton is also bringing in 50,000 disposable non-medical grade masks from China, which she will donate to Austin groups, such as grocery store employees, who need them.
Overton says she already has material available to make the SPIbelt masks, and staff ready to sew them. Two Austin brothers who are roommates will do most of the work at the SPIbelt warehouse near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
The SPIbelt team started working on the mask design earlier this week, Overton says. The double-layered masks, made of wicking material and elastic, are washable and reusable.
“Our wicking material is great for these standard masks,” Overton says. “It’s keeping my team motivated and it’s for my own health too.”
Overton was diagnosed with a lung condition called bronchial stenosis in late 2019 and had pneumonia in February, which puts her in the higher risk category if she catches the novel coronavirus.
The SPIbelt masks will be available starting next week online at www.spibelt.com. A price has not yet been set, but a three-pack will sell for about $20.
Overton launched SPIbelt in February 2007 and now manufacturers about 250,000 units each year. Almost all are made in Austin. They are sold in more than 35 countries around the globe and at retailers including Dick’s Sporting Goods, REI and Academy.