Becca Priddy is a middle school teacher who spends her summers making and selling bow ties for cats. She donates a chunk of the proceeds to cat-adoption groups.
But the COVID-19 pandemic means school is out for the foreseeable future. So when the opportunity presented itself, Priddy turned her hands to something else: making masks for health care workers.
Priddy was recruited to Crafters Against COVID-19 PDX, a Portland-area group that's joining hundreds of other similar groups making masks across the country. They're sewing cloth masks for hospitals and public health officials, which can hopefully supplement supplies of medical-grade masks, preserving the best equipment for the health care workers who need it most.
Priddy started right away.
"I started going through my stash of fabric and pulled out all the light colors," said Priddy, who named her company Business Catual. Light-colored bow-ties aren't big sellers (they get dirty too fast). She already had elastic on hand, too: leftovers from a round of cat yarmulkes.
Crafters Against COVID-19 PDX was started by Alice Jin. Her husband is an infectious diseases doctor, and he came home one day and told her about the need for masks, not just for doctors, but for potentially infected patients who might be visiting emergency rooms. Although a cloth mask may not prevent you from getting sick, it’s much better at catching infectious droplets than, say, sneezing into your sleeve.
In just a week, the group exploded from a handful of people to over 7,000 from all across the country. One person from New Zealand reached out to Jin to help. Jin said she started crying. “It was incredibly touching, to see people coming together to help," she said. "Everyone’s been stepping up, it’s wonderful.”
Coordinating 7,000 volunteers is no small task.
“It’s this beast I’ve created,” Jin said, adding that it’s a good beast. “I’m trying to tame it, and it’s going well. I’m very optimistic!”
Crafters Against COVID-19 PDX partnered with the Multnomah County Health Department, which collects the masks from Jin’s group and others in the area and distributes them to hospital networks that need them the most. But you can’t just drop masks off; groups coordinate with Multnomah County to ensure that masks are clean, sterile and made of the right material. Each order must be time-stamped and sealed in a bag and box, remaining unopened until it’s going to be used.
Jin said her group has already delivered hundreds of masks to Multnomah County.
Across the state, other groups are making PPE on smaller, but no less impactful, scales.
From quilting to mask-making
Mary Howell-Kirk is a part of her parish’s quilting group in Canby. It’s mostly older women with a wide variety of skills. Some are expert quilters, some help iron while they learn. The group had a goal of making six quilts this year, and have finished four, but they stopped meeting to comply with social distancing guidelines.
Then a member of the parish got an email from a college friend about making masks and passed it on to the quilting group.
“A number of people from our group said, ‘I’m in. I’m totally in,” Howell-Kirk recalled.
They reached out to folks in their parish to see if anyone had connections with health care workers. They quickly connected with the Canby Fire Department, who said they’d take any cloth masks they could find. People who work in fire departments are also first responders. They won’t be intubating patients like doctors are, but they’re still at risk of contracting or spreading the disease. Some masks also went to Legacy Meridian Park.
“They’re not necessarily going to folks in surgical situations,” Howell-Kirk said. “But there are folks who have other lower-risk jobs in the hospital.”
Another shipment went to a local veterinarian that had already donated all of their medical-grade PPE. Now the group has started making cotton surgical caps as well, to help health care workers keep their hair up and tidy.
Howell-Kirk said getting to volunteer and help out has given her and her friends something to do and a purpose during the crisis. The biggest thing it’s given them is a sense of community.
“We’re just so connected, we’re all talking to each other, exchanging tips. 'Is it better for the mask to be six inches, or seven?'” Howell-Kirk said. “It’s silly stuff like, ‘Oh, hey, I have a bunch of white fabric, can we use that?’ But we’re really connected.”
She said folks are arranging drop-offs and exchanging supplies by leaving bags on each other's porches.
National movement aided by idled workers
The mask-making movement is nationwide and has become especially urgent in New York City, which currently has the largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country.
Ella Hall runs Stitchroom, which makes cloth goods in New York. When the company closed for COVID-19, she found herself in a unique position to help out.
“We had this network of creators with time on their hands. The problem was connecting them with hospitals who needed it,” Hall said.
So she posted a mask pattern to her company’s website and set up a portal for donations and a way for doctors and hospitals to request masks. The doctors would say how many masks they needed, and rank their needs on a scale of 1-10. Then, she posted about it on Instagram — and it blew up.
“We were bombarded by doctors telling us their stories. ‘We need masks, we’re re-using masks, we just need something to cover our faces,'” Hall recalled. As of Thursday they had over 200 makers across the country and had produced thousands of masks since they launched on Saturday.
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‼️UPDATE‼️ We are looking for volunteers with sewing machines, materials and the skillset to produce this essential safety equipment - if we can all join together to build this network we can help our heroes on the front lines. If you are not a maker and still want to help, you can donate on our page stitchroom.com/masks. All donations go towards getting the masks to where they are needed the most. Thank you everyone for reaching out and please continue to spread the word! Sign up to be a maker at www.stitchroom.com/masks or go to our link in bio! #diyfacemask #facemask #facemasks #sewing #sewingmachine #sewersofinstagram #sewer #tailors #seamstress #getmeppe
In Oregon, doctors report only being allowed one N95 mask, and sometimes just one surgical mask, per day. Surgical masks are meant to be changed often and after every patient. Once they become damp with moisture from people's breath, they're essentially useless.
Some hospitals are hesitant to accept any homemade PPE. Although the CDC said bandannas and scarves can work as a last resort, there’s no research on their effectiveness, so they can’t actually be considered PPE.
But surely, there had to be something better than a loosely wrapped scarf. OHSU said they aren’t currently accepting donations of handmade PPE, but they also say they’re evaluating several fabrics that show “some promise,” and may ask for masks in the future. And doctors in New York say that handmade PPE at minimum covers their face, and is less unwieldy than a scarf or bandanna.
In a press conference Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, seconded that, saying DIY masks should only be used and made if health care workers are desperate.
“I don’t see that as necessary right now,” he said.
But while some hospitals may not want do-it-yourself personal protective equipment, Hall said the doctors her organization works with say they are desperate and the handmade PPE is necessary.
“I received an email from one of our doctors this morning, and he was like, ‘The whole staff is in tears, they’re just so grateful. We don’t know when the next shipment will come. Finally, someone is looking out for us!’” Hall said.
She said doctors and hospitals were constantly following up, asking when masks would be ready. These masks aren’t meant to replace N95 masks or surgical masks, Hart said. They should either be used as a last resort or by lower-risk medical professionals so that proven protective masks can be reserved for the people who need them most.
In Oregon, the situation is much the same. OPB has collected stories from hospital workers around the state who say they don't have access to adequate protective equipment. Some report being asked to use one surgical mask all day. When a worker at Salem Health tried to bring in PPE her husband had made, she was told she couldn't use it.
Salem Health has since changed that policy and Wednesday put out a request to get help making more than 10,000 cloth masks. They’re providing kits, which volunteers can pick up from the hospital during designated hours.
So you want to make some masks?
Want to help out? There are a few things you should know, first. There’s already a handful of groups set up around the state making masks to hand over if someone has need. Before making the masks, find a group that wants them or try to connect with another group that’s already made and distributed some. The fabric can be leftover scraps, but it’s best if it’s new, clean cotton. And it needs to be freshly laundered to make sure it’s sterile.
Jin said she’s encouraging folks in Crafters Against COVID-19 PDX to seal and time stamp their orders, so hospitals know they haven’t been opened and contaminated.
Hall suggests that any groups donating masks try to arrange a point person at each hospital to take drop-offs. Originally, her group mailed masks to hospitals themselves, but found that sometimes they got lost in the chaos once they arrived. She said now they send them directly to hospital administrators or doctors, or put them at a prearranged drop-off point. The Multnomah County Health Department seconds that.
And Howell-Kirk suggests reaching out to contacts you already have in your community. Have a friend who works at a veterinary office? Know a first responder or a nurse, or someone who works in an assisted living facility? Ask them what they need, and then do your best to fulfill it.
The Multnomah County Health Department has also posted a list of volunteer opportunities, including mask making, on their website. Alice Bush, who coordinates the volunteers, said it's been heartening to see the spirit of volunteerism spread in Multnomah County.
Howell-Kirk agrees. “In many ways, this is what America is made of," she said. "When there’s a need, there are people who are willing to rally and do whatever it takes.”