Gabe Donohoe, lead sewer, works on creating face shields for people with hearing loss or deafness. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

Gabe Donohoe, lead sewer, works on creating face shields for people with hearing loss or deafness. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

Local mask-making company continues to grow

Their design is widely sought after for its specialized use

A local company, created to deal with the personal protective equipment shortage present at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, has expanded and stabilized as it pivots to providing masks for the deaf and other niche markets.

“We’re having more and more people come to us and say they want this product for things we never thought of,” said Hal Daugherty, founder and CEO of Rapid Response PPE. “The hospital ones will have the removable shrouds. The ones for kids will have the fun cartoon things.”

While the CDC advises that children under age 2 should not wear masks, these are not cloth masks in direct contact with the face, nor are they intended for children that young.

Daugherty stood the company up in March as an effort to create and donate PPE for first responders and medical personnel. With that mission accomplished, the organization moved into creating more designs and recovering costs incurred.

Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire                                Shay McCormick, left, and Katie McCaffrey, work on preparing materials for use in face shields for people with hearing loss.

Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire Shay McCormick, left, and Katie McCaffrey, work on preparing materials for use in face shields for people with hearing loss.

“Our goal here wasn’t to make money,” Daugherty said. “It was to do something good for the community.”

While the masks are now being sold, much of the cost went to offsetting Daugherty’s initial investment.

One of the biggest successes of that, face masks allowing deaf people and people with partial hearing loss to see the mouths of the speaker, was noticed by a number of forums for audiologists across the country. Word spread, and Rapid Response PPE was suddenly inundated with requests from groups across the country — and planet.

“When we first started, we must have had 500 emails,” said Deborah Rodriguez, HR manager for the company. “What we’ve done is every day, we have to check every email. Everything changes every day.”

Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire                                Workers strive to fulfill orders for face shields for people with hearing loss. Rapid Response PPE, founded at the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic, is creating specialized PPE, allowing deaf people and people with hearing loss to easily see the speaker’s face, May 29, 2020.

Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire Workers strive to fulfill orders for face shields for people with hearing loss. Rapid Response PPE, founded at the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic, is creating specialized PPE, allowing deaf people and people with hearing loss to easily see the speaker’s face, May 29, 2020.

The company started sending out international orders on Friday, sending orders to Israel, Canada and the United Kingdom. Demand in school districts, schools for the deaf, audiologists and others from Alaska to California to Texas to New York is also growing, Daugherty said.

“You hear stories like that,” Daugherty said. “We had one lady come in with tears in her eyes. She told me ‘I couldn’t hear, and now, I can.’”

According to Melissa McCormick, operations manager for the company, more than 6,000 of the face shields have gone out already. The masks went into production a little over two weeks ago, McCormick said.

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“What we’re finding out is a lot of school districts in the United States have contacted us,” Daugherty said. “It’s floor to ceiling with boxes every day. We can’t keep up.”

The shop employs local men and women, many of whom would otherwise be working in the tourist hospitality industry during the summer.

“I like working here. It was a good opportunity,” said Shay McCormick, a University of Alaska Anchorage student home for the summer. “It’s just a good thing that we’re all doing.”

Carl Ferlauto, left, and Hal Daugherty discuss the design for their face shield for people with hearing loss. Rapid Response PPE, founded at the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic, is creating specialized PPE, allowing people with hearing loss or deaf people to easily see the speaker’s face, May 29, 2020. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

Carl Ferlauto, left, and Hal Daugherty discuss the design for their face shield for people with hearing loss. Rapid Response PPE, founded at the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic, is creating specialized PPE, allowing people with hearing loss or deaf people to easily see the speaker’s face, May 29, 2020. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

McCormick had the idea to integrate leftover material into face shields intended for children, creating animal ears or fantasy elements such as fairy tiaras into the masks.

“I was just cutting out the foam and thought it’d look good and be a good idea,” McCormick said.

The company is also trying to donate masks and money to other local organizations where it can, including St. Vincent de Paul Juneau, Daugherty said. They’ve also worked to donate some PPE to residents of Pelican, Craig, Tenakee and Angoon, Daugherty said.

“We’re creating a product that’s helping people be safe,” Daugherty said. “We’re creating jobs where people come here to work. And we’re allowing people to go back to work.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757.621.1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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