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UW-Eau Claire grad working to produce masks for health care workers, others

| Judy Berthiaume

Steve Kriesel

Steve Kriesel

A UW-Eau Claire graduate who runs a Twin Cities textile company is stepping up to help meet the needs of health care workers and others who are struggling to find enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to avoid contamination during the coronavirus crisis.

“I run a textile company that makes musical instrument gig bags in Minneapolis, mostly leather and heavy nylon,” says Steve Kriesel, president of Minneapolis-based Torpedo Bags. “But we’re switching gears to produce CDC-compliant emergency masks to keep people safer from exposure, because we can and should.”

Kriesel, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 1995 with degrees in music education and English education, is organizing a GoFundMe fundraiser to help his company manage the costs of transitioning to producing what he hopes will be thousands of CDC-approved masks.

“My wife is a nurse, so this is personal,” Kriesel says of his efforts. “Emergency workers and hospital staff are running out of personal protective equipment. People are not wearing masks at supermarkets and other public spaces. We need to solve both problems to the best of our abilities, and we need to overreact and solve it now.”

The mask-making project took on an even greater sense of urgency when his wife, who has been a surgical nurse for more than 20 years, came home from the hospital where she works angry that the mask shortage will mean that nurses will be left with substandard gear despite working in contaminated areas.

“A modern hospital doesn’t have enough masks to keep my wife and their patients safe,” Kriesel says.

The leather goods textile factory he runs can be immediately converted to making high quality, double-layer cotton masks of the type used for decades in surgeries, Kriesel says, noting that the design and materials of the masks they intend to make are CDC compliant.

“We have all the equipment we need to make thousands of these every week,” Kriesel says. “We have industrial cutting equipment, a domestic supply chain, professional production sewers that know how to work fast for each unit, and packaging and shipping experience. However, scaling up requires money. We have the patterns ready to cut and can get dies made overnight for faster cutting.”

Kriesel founded Torpedo Bags Inc. in 2001 when he was working as a professional trumpet player and teacher. The business makes bags and cases used by professional and amateur musicians throughout the United States.

Pat Hull, a UW-Eau Claire graduate who currently lives in Eau Claire, is co-owner of Torpedo Bags Inc. Hull earned his degree in music in 1994.

It’s not surprising to see Blugolds like Kriesel and Hull step in to help during a time of crisis, says Kimera Way, president of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation and executive director of University Advancement.

“Steve and Pat are the epitome of The Power of AND that so defines UW-Eau Claire,” Way says. “Not only have they transformed their music degrees into additional careers (while still pursuing their passion for music) but at a time when the need is the greatest, they have pivoted to use their expertise to help the medical profession and the general community be safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our alumni demonstrate time and again that a Blugold degree provides you with more than just a college education. It instills lifelong skills of creativity, entrepreneurship and service. We couldn’t be prouder of and more grateful for Steve and Pat.” 

The fundraiser he launched Sunday to help cover the costs of the project already has received support from dozens of donors, Kriesel says. His goal, he says, is to raise enough money to produce at least 10,000 masks.

Kriesel hopes the number of donors will increase significantly as more people learn about their efforts to produce thousands of masks, which will be donated to hospitals and to members of the general public as they enter public spaces, such as hospital entrances and grocery stores.

While the masks his factory plans to make will be less efficient than the N95 systems preferred by health care providers, they still offer much needed protection, he says.

They will be a higher quality than homemade versions, with heavier weight cloth tie downs and over-the-ear elastic that can be washed and dried in high heat, Kriesel says.

“COVID-19 is an opportunity to come together to save lives,” Kriesel says of his efforts to produce the much-needed masks.

You can reach Steve Kriesel at steve@torpedobags.com