KIBBUTZ TZUBA, Israel (Reuters) - Israel is heading off shortages of disposable surgical masks during the coronavirus crisis by mass-producing washable versions sized to fit everyone from children to bearded men who shun shaving due to their religion.
As part of stepped-up precautions against the virus, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government on Sunday made it compulsory for Israelis to cover their mouths and noses while in public.
But the global crunch on medical kit has made single-use masks scarce or overpriced. After sending Mossad spies to hunt for supplies abroad and permitting Israelis to opt for scarfs or other makeshift masks, the government turned to local expertise.
The result is a mask made of high-density cotton similar to bedsheet material, which can be disinfected with a 60 degree Celsius laundry cycle and reused, potentially for weeks.
Around 10 workshops - including in jails - on around-the-clock shifts have made the first million masks for the emergency services and high-risk groups, said Amit Ben-Kish, a manager of the project sponsored by the health and defense ministries.
While the state covered that initial cost, the plan is to produce further masks for sale in shops at around $2 each.
“Each mask can be used tens of times. By buying five masks for less than $10, you are set for a few months,” Ben-Kish said at a factory in Kibbutz Tzuba, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Behind him, a dozen teens on a volunteer year-off between high school and compulsory military service perched behind sewing machines that were set apart in deference to social distancing. They rattled off masks that were then stacked for sterilization and packing with multilingual instruction labels.
The masks’ protection is comparable to paper surgical masks: more than improvised cloth, less than N95 filtered respirators.
“Another advantage of woven fabric masks is that they can be made in variable sizes. We already made masks for kids, youths and adults. One particular size - extra large - fits people with beards,” Ben-Kish said.
Many of Israel’s Jews and Muslims, and some Christian clergymen, wear beards as a mark of faith, and the mask order raised questions as to how facial hair would be accommodated.
Except for a blue police design, the masks come in white, said designer Rinat Peleg Hermoni.
Some types of pigmentation can present a respiratory risk, she explained: “And besides, white shows dirt clearly. It’s a good reminder of when a wash might be past due.”
Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Giles Elgood