As the coronavirus pandemic began to sweep across the nation, it became clear that we were critically short on certain medical necessities including hand sanitizer, masks, and ventilators. Many feared for what would be a soon to come shortfall on these items that are medically critical to prevent further spread of the virus and effectively treat those who have it. 

Thankfully, private enterprise has stepped up to the plate in a historic way. Businesses are transitioning to fill the existing gaps and provide the supplies that the country needs. In Mississippi, we have seen local business leaders bravely take risks in order to fill critical medical needs. 

A few days ago I had the chance to speak with Josh West, owner and founder of Blue Delta Jeans, a high-end clothing company based out of Oxford that creates custom order jeans, tailored to each individual.

In 2012, Josh launched Blue Delta Jeans after working in economic development. Through his previous role, he had the opportunity to work with a range of factories, and it was clear to him that while some manufacturing was moving abroad, there was a strong supply of skilled workers in North Mississippi and a demand for American-made products.

And that business has only grown in the past eight years.

Today, Blue Delta Jeans is doing things a little differently. They have fully transitioned its factory to make much-needed masks. After only two weeks of production their team is now able to construct 10,000 masks a week and are aiming even higher. While not medical-grade, these high-quality masks are designed to be used in non-acute situations, especially those in waiting rooms, grocery stores, and elsewhere, thus allowing for the medical-grade masks to be entirely used by those who need them. Once the masks are constructed, they are then shipped to government entities for statewide distribution.

If he had been told in February that Blue Delta would be making masks, Josh said to me that he never would have believed it. Yet, as the virus got worse, he heard more about the need for supplies, especially masks. So, he started looking further into it and then began contacting his local suppliers. His focus was on making the product safe, so he worked with Mississippi State University to conduct initial tests before construction of the product. Then, in just a 48-hour period, they changed the entire factory over from jeans to masks.

Blue Delta is now not only providing masks, but also continued employment, a critically important need for people as we undergo a continued economic slump due to the virus. Josh told me that each employee was given the opportunity to leave, and that when times returned to normal, he assured each that they would have a job waiting for them, and yet every single employee chose to stay and transition to working on masks. They are ensuring a safe work environment by placing temporary walls up and allowing each individual to practice social distancing while sewing the masks.

Blue Delta has been able to keep people employed and has even sought to hire more workers in order to expand their capacity for mask construction. The power of a steady paycheck is critically important for those seeking to provide for their families during this time of need. And so, in this way, Blue Delta Jeans has fulfilled a dual need both through their support of their workers and supports of thousands of people through the construction of their masks.

This local clothing company, that started in 2012 with just one seamstress, is now making 10,000 masks a week to support the community. Josh West and his company highlight what’s great about Mississippi and this country.

As we closed the conversation, Josh noted that, “[h]opefully we’ll be making jeans again one day.” Neither Josh nor I are certain when this crisis will end, but even once the Blue Delta Jeans factory is back to its normal line of work, I don’t think anyone will soon forget what they did for the state.

These businesses that are stepping up deserve to be highlighted, and so the Mississippi Center for Public Policy is launching a series dedicated to doing just that. Over the coming weeks, we aim to showcase the stories of these local businesses who have willingly given up their normal operating procedures to help as many people as they possibly can.

If you know of a local Mississippi business that is helping those in need during this critical time, we’d love to highlight the work that they’re doing. Please email Hunter Estes via estes@mspolicy.org to discuss further.