Volunteers across the nation have formed sewing groups, where they share patterns they think can best address the needs of medical workers. Using their sewing machines and piles of fabric, they work to make as many masks as they can to help hospitals in need of more supplies.
“We’re the ones you want around in the apocalypse,” said Christine Cox, a volunteer in the Atlanta area who is helping with a local effort to create masks.
Last week, national retailer JOANN Fabrics and Craft Stores released a video tutorial on how to make face masks. The retailer encouraged people to drop off them at store locations, where they will be donated to local hospitals.
Such ramped up efforts come as some hospital systems say their suppliers are not filling regular orders. Cloth masks are far from an ideal solution, experts say, and it doesn’t seem that medical workers are using them on a widespread scale just yet.
But with a dwindling supply of N95 respirators and a surge in virus cases, healthcare facilities are bracing for the worst.
One hospital asked for about 15,000 masks
St. Luke’s University Health Network, headquartered in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, posted a notice on its website Saturday saying it currently has enough stock of necessary items, but wants to prepare for potential shortages in the future.
It asked the community for donations of personal protective equipment and other supplies, as well as fabric and elastic to make its own masks.
Sheri Yeisley, the Easton, Pennsylvania, resident, was among those who sprang into action last weekend after hearing from the hospital system. Health officials there had asked if she could help supply between 10,000 and 15,000 face masks.
Yeisley, an interior decorator who specializes in window treatments, spread the word through her circles of sewing friends. She created a Facebook Live video to explain how to craft the masks, following instructions posted on another hospital system’s website.
Not long after posting her video, she received hundreds of comments, including some from elementary and high school friends who said they’d start making masks for health care workers in their areas.
While Yeisley and her friends have plenty of fabric on hand, she realized that they were short on elastic.
So, she reached out to a local swimsuit company, which donated 3,600 yards – enough for at least 10,000 masks. She’s been distributing it to volunteers who’ve offered to assist.
The coronavirus pandemic has already impacted Yeisley’s loved ones. On Sunday, she found out that one of her cousins died of Covid-19.
She said she has a lot of friends who are health care workers, and wants to help keep them safe during the pandemic.
“I realized that if they get sick, who’s going to take care of us?” said Yeisley, who plans to craft a few hundred masks herself. “I’m trying to stand in the gap until the cavalry comes with the N95 masks to save us all.”
One community is making masks just in case
In Atlanta, a group of amateur sewers and people from local fabric and stitching stores joined forces to help area hospitals get ahead of the crisis.
The group, called Sewing Masks for Atlanta Hospitals (COVID-19), has so far received requests from 15 different healthcare facilities that have asked for a total of 3,000 masks, according to Kayla Hittig, facilities coordinator for the group.
Some of the smaller facilities are already running out of face masks, while others have enough supplies at the moment but are preparing for potential shortages, Hittig said.
The masks are not intended to replace N95 respirators, but the idea is that cloth masks could help those respirators last longer at a time when healthcare workers are being asked to reuse masks.
“These masks are not N95, and we cannot guarantee you will not get sick wearing it,” Hittig said. “This offers extra protection for our workers on the frontlines that do not have anything to prolong the life of their N95s.”
Christine Cox, one of the sewers in the group, said she has been testing out patterns to fit various needs.
So far, she is working on three distinct types of face masks: simple masks that can be worn by patients or primary care providers; larger masks that can fit over N95 respirators to extend their use; and masks with pockets for removable filters.
Cox and many other volunteers are constructing masks using materials they have at home. The group’s coordinators are also arranging for materials to be distributed to homes for those who don’t have enough supplies.
Once the masks are ready, they’re taken to a neighborhood drop-off point. From there, they’re brought into a sorting area and go through a quality control process. Masks that are delivered to hospitals must be double-layered and constructed from cotton, Hittig said.
The response has been overwhelming so far. In just a few days, the Facebook group has amassed more than 3,000 members, and some individuals are churning out dozens of masks a day.
Hospitals are still discussing how they’ll use homemade masks
Deaconess Health System ramped up its order of surgical masks in January when it saw the outbreak spreading in China. But since then, it has received less and less from its supplier and nothing in the last week or two, said Dr. James Porter, president of Deaconess.
While the seven-hospital system in Southern Indiana has enough masks on hand to last a few months, Porter is concerned that it could be overwhelmed if public health efforts to slow the virus’ spread are unsuccessful. Deaconess has already sent in more than 200 tests and has admitted several patients suspected of having coronavirus.
Last week, the hospital system posted an instructional video and guide to making face masks for health care workers on its website to boost its reserves.
“You can’t just make these masks overnight,” Porter said. “If that’s what we have, then we’ll have them available.”
However, hospital executives are still discussing what role the homemade masks will play, Porter said. He’s hoping health care workers don’t have to don them when dealing with patients with coronavirus or other respiratory viruses, instead using them in other situations.
But the effort has also given people stuck at home, who may be bored and scared, something positive to do, Porter said.
Deaconess has already received more than 5,000 emails and 500 calls from people offering help or acknowledging their own need for masks, some from as far away as Europe, Africa and Australia, said Pam Hight, the hospital system’s public relations manager.
A local furniture company and “a group of guys” who make upholstery for hot rods have also said they will churn out masks for the hospital, Hight said.
Homemade masks should be a last resort, experts say
Research has shown that healthcare workers who wear cloth masks have significantly higher rates of infection when compared to medical grade masks.
A 2013 study conducted by Public Health England’s Health Protection Agency, albeit one with a small sample size of volunteers, found that surgical masks were three times more effective in blocking the transmission of influenza than masks made from cotton T-shirts.
“The homemade face mask and surgical mask, they are not designed to protect you from infection,” Anna Davies, the lead author on the study, said. “A surgical mask is designed to stop a surgeon from spitting at a patient.”
Researchers at University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, published a similar study in 2015, conducted with more than 1,600 hospital workers. They cautioned against the use of cloth masks, noting that they could result in an increased risk of infection.
But both Davies and Raina MacIntyre, who was a researcher on the 2015 study, said cloth masks are better than nothing if they are worn responsibly.
“I’d think on a theoretical basis, they should provide protection because they give you a physical barrier to protect the nose and the mouth,” MacIntyre, who is head of the biosecurity program at the Kirby Institute University of New South Wales, said.
She recommended that if medical staff absolutely have to use homemade masks, that they should cycle between two masks and wash them daily in hot water.
But MacIntyre condemned the realities that are forcing hospitals to consider such measures, saying that Western countries had failed slow the spread of the virus by being too slow to test people and enact social distancing measures.
“If a doctor or a nurse has to treat a patient, they should use whatever they can get their hands on,” she said. “If they can make a mask or get a homemade mask, use it. It’s a life or death situation for them.”