Local 1547 RENEW activist Amanda Mertes, who is coordinating a major mask-making project for Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, safely distributes sewing materials to volunteers via a pole as they pull into the local’s parking lot to pick up the kits and drop off finished masks.
     Throughout Alaska, members of the statewide local are also making masks and taking on other projects to protect their communities during the coronavirus crisis.

Amanda Mertes was online exploring the shortage of personal protective equipment and the viability of cloth masks when she got a phone call that turned her curiosity into a mission.

Local 1547 journeyman wireman Amanda Mertes continues to sew masks herself, but spends the bulk of her time managing a mask-making operation in Fairbanks that has grown to more than 200 IBEW and community volunteers.

Could she rally volunteers to keep Alaska’s Fairbanks Memorial Hospital stocked with home-sewn surgical-grade masks during the COVID-19 crisis?

“Of course,” Mertes told Doug Tansy, a member of the hospital foundation’s board and assistant business manager in Fairbanks for Anchorage, Alaska, Local 1547, which represents workers across the entire state.

“We had a virtual board meeting and I asked a bunch of questions to identify needs, such as masks,” Tansy said. “I offered to access our RENEW group and the board said, ‘Can you guys start today?’”

Mertes, a journeyman wireman and RENEW activist, was eager to help her community — and herself — get back to normal as soon as possible. She had time on her hands, forced to stop working last month due to a compromised immune system that puts her at higher risk for the virus.

RENEW, with NextGen in Canada, is the IBEW’s organization for young members who want to get more involved with their union and in their communities.

“I’d been doing random research — ‘How can I make this go away? What are other communities running out of?’ — so that we can mitigate this, so we don’t get quite as severe of a spread, and so I can go back to work,” Mertes said.

Assistant Business Manager Doug Tansy slips surgical wrap and instructions into Local 1547 bags, kits that volunteers are using to make thousands of masks for Fairbanks Memorial Hospital workers.

In barely two weeks, she built an army of 200 sewing enthusiasts with more in the wings, from Local 1547 members and retirees to scores of other volunteers throughout the sprawling Fairbanks area deep inside Alaska’s interior.

They’ve put a big dent already in their 10,000-mask goal, providing disposable protection for non-clinical hospital staff and regular patients, while preserving vital N95 respirators for doctors and nurses treating COVID-19 victims.

At the local, Tansy and dispatcher Carrie VanDehei assemble kits for 20 to 42 masks depending on size. They slip patterns, instructions with a YouTube link and surgical wrap from the hospital — sterile fabric normally used to protect medical instruments — into Local 1547-branded plastic bags.

Twice a week, the local’s parking lot serves as a drive-through for safely picking up the kits and dropping finished masks in bins.

“They pull up and we hold out the bag on a stick to maintain social distancing,” Mertes said. “Everyone laughs but they’re also really appreciative.”

Mertes sews some masks herself, but mainly deals with hundreds of emails a week, process management, and strict quality control. She runs a meticulous ship that includes inspecting photos of volunteers’ first masks, making sure pleats aren’t too deep or upside down, that one side is open for a filter, and that there’s no damage.

“They can’t use pins,” she said. “They have to use quilter clips, paper clips, or binder clips, because we don’t want to poke any holes in the material.”

RENEW volunteers in Anchorage, Juneau and other communities around the state also have started making masks, Business Manager Dave Reaves said. Members are stepping up in other ways, too, from shopping for retirees to collecting PPE donated by contractors.

“We’re facilitating those efforts to try to get ahead of the big outbreak,” Reaves said. “We have been lucky that way; we’re a little bit behind the rest of the country.”

Mertes said thinking ahead is part of being an Alaskan — being ready for emergencies in a land with brutal weather and what can be hundreds of miles between gas stations and stores.

“Living in Alaska gives you a little bit of a different mentality, a preparedness mentality,” she said. “Whenever we approach a situation or problem, we always try to be prepared for the worst.”

Check out Local 1547's Facebook page and its RENEW page  for updates and photos showing members' mask-making projects and other good works throughout Alaska.