Traveling frequently between New York and the Twin Cities, Jody Vitelli often found herself sitting next to coughing and sneezing people and wished she or they had a way to protect themselves from spreading infection.
She decided to to create Tutem Masks (www.tutemmasks.com), individually wrapped personal masks to minimize infection. Vitelli has been selling her product since last year in about 80 outlets, including airport stores, and playing a small part in the fight to curtail the common cold.
“It can be used not only when you travel, but also the workplace, day care or college dorm,” she said.
Just as nurses and doctors have multicolored stethoscopes to make the devices less off-putting, Vitelli offers her masks in 11 designs. Buyers can choose among pink houndstooth and blue-gray geometric designs, as well as in-your-face messages printed on the front such as “Don’t go viral” or “Keep it to yourself.”
“Young people in their 20s and 30s are especially interested in the product if it’s snarky or edgy,” she said. She also markets it to frequent travelers and families with newborns.
But Vitelli knows her product is a tough sell in the U.S. Masks are common in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, but not here.
Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport spokesman Patrick Hogan said he generally sees people wearing masks traveling to and from Asia, especially on Delta’s Tokyo flights.
Making the masks fashionable or fun is a good start at mass acceptance, but it’s the concept of wearing a mask that’s the real issue, said George John, professor of marketing at the Carlson School of Management.
“It’s much harder to sell a concept than a better mousetrap,” he said. He sees the mask as a niche product that can be sold to those with an existing need, such as caregivers of chronically ill people.
But when Americans don’t see an acute crisis such as SARS, Ebola, Swine flu or measles, masks may be seen as paranoid overkill. Vitelli wants to be clear that surgical masks such as hers don’t protect against Ebola or other serious diseases.
Some experts say surgical masks are generally ineffective at preventing colds and flu as well.
“Wearing a surgical mask is like sealing three of five submarine doors and hoping you don’t take on water,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. “The masks should not be seen as preventing diseases from the respiratory tract. They have limited effectiveness.”
They can keep large droplets from getting in contact with the mouth or nose. Basic hygiene such as washing hands frequently and using alcohol-based hand sanitizer, especially with a moisturizer to minimize hand cracks, is preferable, Osterholm said. Vitelli includes hand wipe sanitizers with the masks.
Vitelli said her product can be used to avoid spreading disease or contracting it. But getting people to wear a mask in public will take an attitude adjustment. In an informal unscientific poll at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport last week, only one person out of five interviewed said they would wear a mask.
Tonia Flategraff, 30, of St. Louis Park said she would not wear one. “It’s uncomfortable,” she said. “I already wash my hands and am careful not to touch the seat tray or pouches.”
Barb McClure of Melrose, Minn., a teacher for 30 years, has faith in her built-in immunity. “I’m around kindergarten kids coughing all day long and I don’t wear a mask in class. I wouldn’t wear one in the airport either,” she said.
Tutem is based in Minneapolis, and the masks are made in Utah and imprinted with water-based, food-safe inks from a Texas company.
“Time will tell on this,” said John, the Carlson professor. “It’s great marketing, but the problem is how to cross over to people who don’t get the concept.”
Vitelli sees her masks as another tool to minimize the spread of infections. “You can cover your mouth when you sneeze, sneeze into your arm, cover your mouth with a tissue or handkerchief or wear a mask,” she said. “It all helps.”