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Groton metal shop 'moving a mountain' to provide nose strips for homemade masks

Groton — A request from a nurse at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital set off a volunteer effort by the Hillery Company metal fabrication shop to help protect health care workers across the country during the coronavirus pandemic.

With the help of volunteers, who are wearing masks at the Meridian Street shop and practicing social distancing, the company has made and shipped tens of thousands of aluminum strips to secure homemade masks to the face.

The effort is continuing as health care facilities across the country scramble to acquire enough masks and other personal protective equipment to protect them from the contagious respiratory droplets that spread the virus.

Hillery had more than 1,000 requests for the free metal nose strips this past week from as far away as Alaska, California and Hawaii, according to General Manager Joe de la Cruz. He posted videos on his Facebook page of the production process and of volunteers addressing and packing the strips for shipping.

In addition to making the strips and filling requests, de la Cruz has been sharing the specifications for the strips with other shops.

"So many companies can do exactly what we're doing," he said.

The company is providing the material for the nose strips and the labor, with help from volunteers, but this past week Chief Executive Officer Jesse Riley created a GoFundMe page, at bit.ly/GFMmaskstrips, asking for donations to offset the cost of shipping. As of Saturday afternoon, donors had pledged $3,500 of the requested $5,000.

The effort began after a nurse at L+M contacted de la Cruz's wife, Tammy, who worked at the hospital for years. "She said, 'We're using all these (homemade masks)," but doesn't Joe do sheet metal?"

Joe de la Cruz, who is also a state representative and co-founder of the opioid addiction awareness nonprofit group Community Speaks Out, said he and his co-workers obtained one of the N95 face masks, which are thought to be effective because they are fitted to the face. He recruited his wife, Tammy, and several family members to help, and others from the community came forward to offer help.

Hillery measured the nose strip and repeated it, then began cutting the 3-inch-long, and 1/8-of-an-inch-wide strips using a shear, which de la Cruz likened to a huge paper cutter for metal.

Some of Hillery's vendors, Chapco Metal of Chester and Hadco Metal of Waterbury, donated sheets of aluminum. Riley figured out how to cut 16 pieces at a time, and the project came together.

Orders for the strips poured in, and de la Cruz contacted the Eastern Manufacturing Board. Sound Manufacturing in Old Saybrook called and said it would make 60,000 strips and send them to Hillery.

"We are trying to move a mountain right now," de la Cruz said by phone Friday morning.

Most of the orders come from small sewing groups, but the company also is receiving requests directly from hospitals. Mt. Sinai Hospital, in the nation's epicenter for the virus in New York City, requested 5,000 pieces, de la Cruz said. Hillery shipped out 1,000 to Mt. Sinai as the company tried to at least partially fulfill every order.

"We have full-time volunteers going through this list, but it's almost overwhelming," de la Cruz said. "The pressure is that we know there's people on the other side waiting for them to come in."

De la Cruz said he hopes other manufacturers read about Hillery's effort and begin making the metal pieces, which he estimated cost about 5 cents per piece.

Hillery is staying open, with a skeleton crew, during the pandemic because its customers, including Groton Utilities and Pfizer Inc., provide essential services. 

k.florin@theday.com

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