Health care workers in hospitals, medical offices, and care facilities everywhere know the drill. When caring for sick patients, they’re required to don personal protective equipment (PPE) to avoid exposure and possible contamination. An important part of basic medical training is that gear such as gowns, eye protection, and masks are to be used only once. Then they are discarded into hazardous waste bins for proper disposal. Under everyday circumstances, to re-use any PPE would be actionable behavior, meaning a health care provider could be fired for failing to follow proper hygiene protocol.
Standards are changing, and not for the better. The advent of new coronavirus has brought with it a pressing shortage of all PPE, especially masks, and specifically N95 masks, the gold standard of PPE. One local nurse I spoke with explained that due to the shortage, medical professionals in her facility were now required to re-use what are designed to be disposable masks. These front-line workers are permitted one mask per patient, per shift. After providing care, the nurses must remove their mask, put it into a plastic bag, and re-wear it when they next provide care for that patient.
A supply chain, rattled
When Wellesley resident and life-long sewer Lynda Cowin Nijensohn heard about the country-wide shortage of masks, she and her kids, 14-year-old Mariana and 12-year-old Jed, both Wellesley Middle School students, decided to find a way to help.
“I’m a good sewer, and I literally have a factory of fabric. I found a pattern online for masks, and my kids and I got going. We started out by sewing over 300, and they all went to Mt. Holyoke Medical Center and a bunch of nursing homes,” she said. “My dad’s a doctor, and I’m aware what I’m making isn’t as good as an N95 mask. But it seemed like there was a need and the masks could be used to help people who may not be working directly with COVID patients, but who still needed safety for everyone.”
Major hospitals have been inundated with offers of homemade masks from sewers ready and willing to help out. So far, volunteers’ efforts have been gently deflected with wording similar to that found on the Atrius Healthcare site: “During a time of supply shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have received kind requests from our patients and the community who are willing to help make homemade masks and provide additional donations. Contributions of critical supplies and equipment are appreciated…we are currently accepting donations of homemade masks to use in the event our supply is depleted.”
But medical care provided by large hospitals represents only one way patient populations receive help. The staff at nursing homes, assisted living facilities, doctors’ offices, and shelters are busy fighting a last stand for their at-risk populations. One month ago, these institutions had all the masks they needed and the expectation that their standing orders would be rolling off the truck per usual. Today, standing orders mean nothing. PPE can’t be bought for love or money.
Have talent, will sew
And that’s where Nijensohn and her team of volunteers come in. These volunteers have lots of love. The money for materials they can find somehow. But most of all, they have determination. Brought together on a Facebook group put together by Nijensohn that has swelled to over 1,300 members, the over 50 sewers currently active have found eager takers for their homemade masks from institutions such as Waterstone Assisted Living in Wellesley; Women’s Lunch Place and the Home for Little Wanderers in Boston; Amego; Vinfen; Boston Rescue Mission, Hebrew Rehab, Spaulding, and many, many others.
Volunteers, start your engines. Can you hear it? That’s the sound of an army of sewers at their revved-up machines, stitching together two layers of 100% cotton fabric, with an elastic attachment. They’re in a race to provide health care workers with not only a measure of safety, but with a message of solidarity. You’re not alone out there. We’re pulling for you. The community cares.
With the recent Centers for Disease Control recommendations stating that people should wear “cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission,” it comes as no surprise that health care facilities are not the only places now gratefully accepting home-made masks. Area fire fighters and police want them, too,
“We’ve sent out over 1,500 masks so far. And we just got a request for 260 from Roche Bros.,” Nijensohn said.