Homebound But Not Helpless: Local Crafters Sew Masks To Support Health Care Workers Front-line health care providers are scrambling to secure enough supplies for a coming surge in COVID-19 cases. And an army of volunteer sewers is trying to help fill in some gaps.
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NPR logo Homebound But Not Helpless: Local Crafters Sew Masks To Support Health Care Workers

Homebound But Not Helpless: Local Crafters Sew Masks To Support Health Care Workers

Harley Snead, left, cuts fabric as her mother Jennifer Snead, right, sews masks for the local hospital out of their Annapolis, Md., home. Susan Walsh/AP Photo hide caption

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Susan Walsh/AP Photo

Health care providers bracing for a flood of coronavirus cases are already worried about adequate supplies of necessities like face masks.

Recently updated advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about what to do in the event of severe shortages didn't help: namely, that N95 masks could be re-used and that bandanas and scarves could be used in lieu of surgical masks.

Enter local crafters, who are joining a national movement to try to help fill some of the gaps. They're sewing specially-designed, washable cloth masks for use over N95s — to extend the use of the scarce commodity — or as an alternative for disposable surgical masks.

"The goal is that we don't allow that cover of an N95 to be super contaminated, wet, have stuff splashed on it," says Christina Headrick of Arlington, Va., one of about a dozen organizers of the Million Mask Challenge, a local DIY mask effort that's gone national.

Headrick wants to be clear, though, that these cloth masks are no substitute for equipment like N95 respirators, which provide the highest level of protection for front line medical workers treating COVID-19 patients.

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"What it is is an extend-the-life-of-the-personal protective equipment strategy," she says. "In the event of nothing else .... if it's well-made and snug-fitting, and you've chosen your materials wisely, it will be better than a bandana, basically, and in some cases, a lot better."

Requests for the masks are pouring into the group's website, which also features patterns and information for sewers who want to contribute.

Within a day of setting up its website, the group received requests for 350 masks. To date, it's received more than 50 requests — for more than 1,500 masks — from staff members at hospitals in D.C., Maryland and Virginia; clinics; nonprofit organizations and even a veterinarian's office.

The group provides a basic pattern, which was adapted from a pattern developed by Deaconess hospitals in Indiana that was used in one of the first high-profile efforts to build up a stock of handmade masks. Adjustments have been made so the mask would fit over an N95 since that's what has been most in demand.

The masks are double-layered and made of tightly woven cloth like cotton or flannel. Headrick estimates that it takes about 10 to 25 minutes to make one.

So far, about 160 people from around the region are signed up to make masks. The group provides the materials if the sewer needs them.

There are plans to add different types of masks and ultimately to provide the template for a no-sew mask made from office supplies, Headrick says.

Kate Blattner, owner of Three Little Birds Sewing Co., a fabric and crafts store and sewing studio in Hyattsville, Md., is also accepting requests for masks. She's received five or six so far, and is working to match them with makers.

Most of her online orders in recent days have been for the supplies to make cloth masks, she tells WAMU in an email.

Fabric that's appropriate for making these cloth masks is readily available, Blattner says. But the elastic the pattern calls for is basically sold out everywhere, in stores and online.

As a result, the Million Mask Challenge organizers are working to design a tie made out of fabric as an alternative and to send donated elastic to volunteers if necessary.

"In this era of social distancing, we don't want people scouring local stores and getting out and making trips," Headrick says. "Please stay home."

And home is where these self-proclaimed craftivists found each other and came together to try to do something to help the medical workers who don't get to stay at home and are out there, in harm's way.

"We're not trying to give anyone a sense of false hope," she says. "But there are things that were within our control to be able to do. And so what we are trying to do is to define what those things are and then basically get them done."

Still, Headrick cautions, these masks — no matter how carefully designed — are no silver bullet.

"You have to combine it with all the other strategies you're doing for infection prevention, including hand-washing, disinfection, social distancing, all of those things," she says. "It's one piece in the puzzle. It's not a solution in and of itself."

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