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A call to sew: Hospitals, nurses ask volunteers to sew protective equipment and thousands respond

Signature Healthcare CNA Stephanie Kinder wears and shows some of her homemade protective masks at her home in Sandy on Saturday, March 21, 2020. Kinder made masks for her colleagues because her company can no longer order them.
Signature Healthcare certified nursing assistant Stephanie Kinder wears and shows some of her homemade protective masks at her home in Sandy on Saturday, March 21, 2020. Kinder made masks for her colleagues because her company can no longer order them.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SANDY — Stephanie Kinder saw her colleague looking at a pattern and wondering aloud if they could make the protective masks they need.

“I went into the office to get my schedule and supplies,” said Kinder, a certified nursing assistant who has worked as a home health and hospice worker for 24 years. “She said, ‘We’re going to have to make our own masks.’ And I said, ‘How do you make them?’ She said, ‘I got this pattern from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) on their website, and it has a list of materials you can use to make masks.”

Doctors across the country, including state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, have said some of the issues with testing those who think they have COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, is that the country’s health care facilities are dangerously low on personal protective equipment, which they need to protect themselves when administering the tests.

The ripple effect of not having enough protective equipment like masks or face shields is massive. While the federal government asks companies to ramp up production, individual hospitals and health care workers have taken to asking anyone who can sew to help make the protective clothing they need.

Providence Hospitals launched the “100 Million Mask Challenge,” which says there is a “severe shortage” and asks for either a financial donation or sewing “medical grade masks” for volunteers that are working with hospitals where medical material is supplied.

In New York, “Project Runway” star Christian Siriano responded to a call for help from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“If @NYGovCuomo says we need masks my team will help make some,” he tweeted. “I have a full sewing team still on staff working from home that can help.”

After a private exchange via Twitter, Cuomo announced Siriano would begin making masks, and asked, “Who’s next?”

In Alaska, Nikki Corbett, a nurse and owner of Sew Yup’ik, decided to put the information and patterns on her Facebook page, along with addresses where people could mail homemade protective masks and head coverings. She’s made 50 in the last two days.

“We’re just making them and donating them to any health care worker who wants them,” said Corbett, who usually offers tutorials on how to make things like kuspuks and bags. “We’re just trying to make as many as we can, and when we run out of elastic, we’ll make masks that tie. When we run out of that material, we’ll make caps. I mean, some nurses are using bandanas, so at least these wrap around and protect better.”

The protective masks most medical personnel use are disposable, and they’re often discarded after each use. Most of the masks being sewn are meant to protect the disposable mask, which could extend the use of a mask up to a week, officials said. In Washington state, health care companies were teaming up with volunteers to sew masks made of medical material, which would protect front-line medical personnel, even if they didn’t have the disposable protective mask underneath it.

In Moab, Ashlee Norman heard the call from rural health care providers, including Moab Regional Hospital, which sent out a pattern and directions to anyone wanting to help. Dozens of individuals and businesses, including Canyonland Quilts, answered the call.

Canyonlands Quilts owner Chyrrel Meyer opened her building, which has HEPA air filters that allow people to gather and work together while reducing the risk of contracting COVID-19, according to an article in the SUU News. The volunteers hope to make between 300 and 500 sets of washable protective gear, and patterns can be found at canyonlandsquilts.com

“Moab Regional Hospital, like many hospitals around the country, is facing a critical shortage of personal protective equipment to keep health care workers safe, in particular face masks and N95 respirators,” Dr. Dylan Cole, chief medical officer for Moab Regional Medical Hospital, said in a statement last week. “We are following CDC crisis guidance to extend current supplies through reducing and reusing current masks and respirators, and even using masks beyond their typical expiration date. Currently, employees at Moab Regional Hospital are assigned one mask per week.”

That call for help went out on Thursday.

“A request was posted to our local community, along with a pattern and instructions, for reusable hand-sewn masks for our employees to use as last resort,” he said in a statement. “While there is little data to suggest that cloth masks are effective in preventing infectious disease transmission, the current situation in our country left us no choice. We are profoundly grateful to the generosity of our community and the remarkable outpouring of support and volunteerism.”

When it comes to homemade masks, Kinder discovered that different materials offer varying levels of protection, but nothing offered the protection that the surgical masks they normally use offers.

The materials recommended included a vacuum cleaner bag, dish towels and cotton material. She said they opted to try to make masks from the “tight-knit dish towels. It’s called a tea towel. And then I just backed it with cotton as that gives it a little bit more protection.”

“A normal surgical mask is 95% effective,” Kinder said. “These were like 86%”

And these are washable. They ordered all the supplies they needed, and Kinder went home to experiment with the pattern offered on the CDC’s website. She plans to make 50 — two for each of her colleagues who have to work with patients in their homes.

“We’re not in the trenches of the pandemic, so we can’t buy any,” she said. “But at least this gives us that little bit of protection.”

But even those in the trenches have resorted to soliciting homemade masks from strangers through email and social media.

Kinder said it feels good to be doing something proactive.

She’s known some of her patients for years, while others are only with them a few weeks. Normally, she’s not very concerned about health risks to herself. But with COVID-19, realities have changed, and she does feel more exposed.

“I go into (the patient’s) houses, and I don’t know where their family members have been,” she said. “Maybe they’ve been out of the country? Our company is starting to ask those questions during admitting.”

She’s grateful for the guidance of the CDC and she’s already cranked out a few test masks in cute colors and useful patterns.

“We’re preparing for worst-case scenarios,” she said. “We may not even need them. ... I haven’t been too concerned yet, but as the numbers (of cases) creep up, it’s getting a little bit concerning.”