OGDEN — William C. Coleman made bomber jackets for U.S. forces in World War II. Now the little company he later started in Ogden has become an important cog in today’s fight against the coronavirus.

Just weeks ago, Coleman Knitting Mills, founded in 1949, was in a slow time, ramping up for its busy season of cranking out hand-crafted cheer wear, letter jackets and leadership sweaters for hundreds of teenagers across Northern Utah.

Everything changed when the company’s current owner, Abe Daleabout, got a call from an acquaintance who runs nursing homes in Washington state.

That was the first state to be hit with a wave of deaths from COVID-19, including dozens in nursing homes. Health care officials were frantic to obtain masks and gowns to help protect workers and patients from the virus.

The caller asked if the Ogden company could make surgical masks and gowns.

“I need as many as you can possibly produce,” she told Daleabout.

Today, Coleman Knitting has entered into contracts with government and health care industry entities desperate for surgical-quality masks and gowns to supplement limited supplies that are being expended as the pandemic expands.

Daleabout said Coleman on Thursday alone shipped masks and gowns to institutions in California, Hawaii, Southern Utah and Washington state. He declined to name customers due to contract obligations.

Coleman Knitting doesn’t make the N95 respirator facemasks that health care personnel need to ward off the coronavirus. But the masks and gowns the 23-employee company produces are of the surgical-grade quality desired and accepted by the health care industry, Daleabout said.

“Every seamstress we have is a professional seamstress with years of experience and vetted by us,” he said.

While not a replacement for the N95, surgical masks afford some protection.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, N95 respirators reduce the wearer’s exposure to virus-carrying airborne particles, from small particle aerosols to large droplets. The tight-fitting masks filter out at least 95% of those particles in the air, the CDC says.

Surgical facemasks are loose-fitting and provide only barrier protection against droplets, including large respiratory particles, the CDC says. Most facemasks do not effectively filter small particles from the air and do not prevent leakage around the edge of the mask when the user inhales.

Daleabout said Coleman’s masks are made to be used as an additional layer of protection over an N95 mask, in their place when N95s are not available, or by patients — such as in the crisis at the Washington nursing homes.

“They’re wrapping Visqueen over their faces because they have nothing else,” Daleabout said.

“I don’t think people understand how important masks and gowns are,” he continued. “It’s kind of a scary time.”

Coleman Knitting happened to have in stock the types of fabric that are ideal for masks. It’s the same fabrics used in cheerleader wear.

“It’s a polyester fabric thick enough to withstand those sprays and coughs,” he said. “And with polyester it dries faster than cotton, washes better and doesn’t shrink and provides a little bit of a stretch to fit around the N95s as a double barrier.”

For the gowns, Coleman is using a leadership sweater pattern, flipped around with the seam down the back.

The demand for masks created by the pandemic is also a hardship for other industries that use surgical-style masks and gowns, and Coleman is trying to meet their needs as well.

“Mortuaries,” Daleabout said. “These poor morticians have to pick up bodies that may be infected.”

He said he’s gratified by offers of support by home seamstresses.

“Unfortunately we can’t have everybody help,” he said, due to contractual quality requirements. Some of the company’s normal workload is being picked up by piece work labor.

Intermountain Healthcare and the University of Utah Health System announced this week they are not able to accept donated homemade cloth masks.

The homemade masks “do not provide the appropriate level of antimicrobial protection for caregivers in close contact with patients with COVID-19,” they said in a press release.

The Utah Department of Health said it is accepting donations of N95 masks and surgical masks and gowns, but only unused items in their original packaging that have been commercially produced.

The dire need for masks and gowns has served to highlight a few positives, however, Daleabout said.

“It’s no wonder to me that our state’s flag has the beehive on it,” he said, because of so many people working together on shared goals in the crisis.

Autoliv, he said, has donated the use of a laser cutter to speed production of Coleman’s gowns.

He’s also happy to see a burst in demand for sustainable, reusable products like Coleman’s masks and gowns.

“We’ve relied way too much on products not made in the USA,” he said. “Hopefully in the future people will go back to wanting more sustainable, locally made, reusable products.”

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt.

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