April 14, 2020 | By: Katie Pratt
Lexington, Ky.

The extensive statewide network of staff and volunteers with the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service has been working diligently to help Kentucky health care facilities get the personal protective equipment they need to do their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When Gov. Andy Beshear said the state needed more face shields to help protect health care workers, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System collaborated with UK Cooperative Extension to help fill the void. Ten regional campuses of KCTCS are using their 3-D printers to make three different designs of headbands for face shields for 17 health care facilities across the state that have requested the personal protective equipment.

“We are so thrilled to have the opportunity to partner with KCTCS and local health care facilities to support the frontline health care workers in Kentucky,” said Laura Stephenson, extension director. “Our extension agents, staff and volunteers have responded quickly to support assembly of personal protective equipment the industry needs.”

KCTCS are printing as many as 4,000 face shield components in a week. They are collaborating with county extension offices to find volunteers for assembly. Extension staff are assembling the shields while strictly following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for social distancing and proper sanitizing. Extension staff return assembled shields to their regional KCTCS facility, where they are quality checked before they go to a health care facility. As of April 13, extension staff had assembled more than 1,000 face shields.

“Extension staff have taken on this challenge and proven once again how valuable, versatile and responsive the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service can be in the face of an ever-changing situation,” said Torey Earle, extension specialist for 4-H youth development, who is coordinating extension’s statewide effort. “KCTCS has been a great partner to work with. They have the resources and equipment, and we have the workforce help get those face shields into the hands of the people who need them. To me, that’s a win-win.”

In addition to the shields, when local health care facilities in Western Kentucky needed more face masks, they turned to the most experienced sewers they knew — those affiliated with UK Cooperative Extension.

Katie Alexander and Amanda Hardy, family and consumer sciences extension agents, received requests for help from local hospitals.

“Debbie Zuerner Johnson is the director of community engagement for Owensboro Health and serves on our county extension council and district board,” said Alexander, from Daviess County. “She reached out to the extension office about possibly getting the Extension Homemakers involved.”

“In Henderson, extension works closely with the Prevention and Wellness Services at Methodist Health,” said Hardy, Henderson County agent. “We decided to help, because PAWS needed the masks to help the general public protect themselves inside and outside of the hospital.”

Johnson gave Alexander the approved patterns and materials to make the masks for Owensboro Health.

“This has been a team effort with all the staff from our extension office,” Alexander said. “Everyone has played a part washing, ironing and sewing. Lindsey Dunn and Stacey Potts, our 4-H agents, even made a YouTube video to show our volunteers how to make ties for the masks, because elastic is hard to find right now.”

After volunteers wash and iron the material, it goes to Glenn Taylor, a Daviess County man who cuts the material with his laser cutter. When the cut material returns to the extension office, staff and volunteers put together the mask kits, which include enough material to make six masks, directions and a thank you note from the office. 

Alexander advertises on social media when the materials are available for pick-up in the extension office’s lobby. While she does not monitor who takes or returns the masks, she knows at least 30 Daviess County Extension Homemakers, Extension Master Gardeners and Owensboro Quilt Guild members have participated. When volunteers finish a kit, they return it to bins located outside either the hospital or the extension office. As of April 11, extension volunteers have made more than 3,000 masks. The hospital recently asked them to make an additional 2,500.

"Owensboro Health is so grateful to the Daviess County Extension agents and Homemakers’ Clubs for their continued efforts to make hand sewn masks for our hospital, as we face the many challenges COVID-19 presents,” Johnson said. “We are truly in this together; while practicing and modeling social distancing and all the efforts which Kentuckians have been asked to do, extension has found a way in exemplar fashion to play an important role in assisting hospitals and their community.”

In Henderson County, Hardy said Karen Hill, who is the president of the Kentucky Extension Homemakers Association, has been instrumental in the project, working as the go-between for the hospital and extension volunteers. Like in Daviess County, volunteers in Henderson County are using the mask patterns and materials specifically provided by Methodist Health. Once the hospital receives the masks, they wash and sterilize them.

“We are only able to successfully do this project, because we are using patterns and materials given to us by the local hospital,” Hardy said. “Each hospital has its own set of approved patterns and materials, and some are not even accepting homemade masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has several recommended patterns on its website.”

Methodist Health initially gave the Henderson County Extension office 25 kits, capable of making 12 masks each, but has provided more since receiving the first completed kits. As of April 3, 25 Henderson County Extension Homemakers have made more than 1,000 masks.

Contact: 

Torey Earle, tearle@uky.edu; Katie Alexander, Katie.alexander@uky.edu; Amanda Hardy, Amanda.hardy@uky.edu