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'Masketeers': Sewing enthusiasts stitch skills with charity to face COVID-19

As the shortage of protective equipment for health care workers has become more pressing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, seamstresses and sewing enthusiasts have rallied across the country to make cotton masks that they say will help shield those on the front lines from the virus.

Whether through Instagram sewing tutorials, neighborhood sewing groups or larger groups orchestrated online, those who can string a thread through a needle have steadily accepted the call to help make masks for medical staff in their own communities.

Locally, that effort has taken a strong hold in southeastern Connecticut, as homegrown sewing groups have joined together over Facebook and local fabric stores have been pitching in to the cause.

JOANN Fabrics of Norwich said Friday that employees have cut and created free mask-making kits for customers to use at home before bringing the masks back to the store for donation. The Colchester Mills Fabrics & Quilting shop also has been encouraging its customers to make masks before donating them to local hospitals.  

Colchester Mill owner Cheryl Dolloff said that after her store was forced to close to the public and lay off all its staff in recent weeks, she has used the free time to put out a “call for help” to her customers, asking them to use their talents to make cotton face masks.

“The response has been incredible,” Dolloff said by phone Friday. “As of this morning, we’ve donated probably about 600 masks just this week. Yesterday (Thursday) alone, we donated 460.” 

“I’ve been getting nearly 100 calls a day from people inquiring about how they can help and how they can get materials,” she added. “We are all in a very difficult situation, and I feel for those on the front line who are trying to protect themselves, as well as heal those they are working with. I gave a donation to one of the nurses at (Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London) ... and when I handed her a bag of 200 masks, the tears were real."

The mask-sewing movement became widespread after reports of worldwide equipment shortages and after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased recommendations concerning how medical personnel nationwide may use both surgical and N95 masks, so named because they filter out 95% of the tiny particles from the air the wearer breathes in and out. 

And while local sewing volunteers say they understand cotton masks can never fully replace or protect as well as medical-grade surgical and N95 masks, they argue that homemade masks are better than nothing if all supplies were to run out.  

Kimberly Russell Thompson of Old Lyme has helped lead the effort in Connecticut with her statewide Facebook group, Connecticut Face Mask Warriors, of which she is an administrator. She said the group was born of the national Face Mask Warrior Facebook group, which has since developed state branches. As of Saturday, the Connecticut-based group had 170 members. 

Russell Thompson, who works as a project manager for Pfizer but also sews children’s clothing for her business, Bizzy Bee Playwear, said she discovered the face mask movement after several of her friends, many of whom are medical professionals, started tagging her in Facebook posts about making the masks. 

“They were telling me that hospitals have been starting to ration equipment through this crisis. They are only letting high-risk providers have the N95 masks,” Russell Thompson said. “When I started seeing that all these people, who I know on a personal level and who are friends, posting that they were being given one mask at the beginning of their shift, it became very scary,” she said. “They are being told to risk their life, this is the one piece of equipment you can get. ... I knew I needed to help.”

A rising need for supplies

While the need for surgical and N95 masks has not yet become an acute issue in local hospitals — there are still supplies, L+M Chief Medical Officer Oliver Mayorga said — Gov. Ned Lamont said Friday that the need for personal protection equipment, or PPE, is “the biggest problem” the state is facing, especially as a surge of COVID-19 patients is expected.

Health officials are now predicting the number of coronavirus infections in Connecticut will double every three to five days and that the peak of the pandemic is likely to occur around April 11-14.

"That's the beginning of the surge, the beginning of folks going into the ICUs needing hospitalization," Lamont said during his Friday afternoon briefing. He said PPE shipments set to arrive last Friday and early this week are now delayed.

As of Friday, the state had made multiple purchases of PPE, including a more than $3.8 million purchase for 1 million surgical masks and 1 million N95 masks, Max Reiss, the governor’s spokesperson, said Friday.

The governor also has requested additional equipment from the Strategic National Stockpile, a federal repository of critical medical supplies for public health emergencies, Reiss said. Of the 250,000 surgical masks and N95 respirators requested from the stockpile, the state has thus far received 81,906 surgical masks and 34,383 N95 respirators, as well as a percentage of other requests that included face shields, surgical gowns, coveralls and gloves.

“This is coming in waves and the first partial shipment was received last week,” Reiss wrote.

Mayorga said L+M, as well as other hospitals in Connecticut, have been soliciting donations of gear, including the homemade cotton masks, in an effort to prepare for extreme shortages, though hospitals are not yet utilizing those masks. He said that’s because the CDC recommends that medical personnel should only use cotton face masks as a last resort, if hospitals run of out of medical-grade face masks, because the protective ability of cotton masks is unknown.

“We at L+M do have enough N95 masks at the moment, but we are anticipating this outbreak to happen over a long period of time, so we are trying to be very diligent about our rate of use of that equipment,” he said.

At the moment, Mayorga said every health care worker in his facilities are being provided a surgical mask to wear every day, but also are being told to “optimize” those masks by reusing them throughout their shifts. Staff place the masks in paper bags for protection when not in use — a rationing technique, Mayorga explained, to ensure enough masks are available for the expected surge.

Before the pandemic, health care providers would use one surgical mask per patient. “It was wear the mask for five minutes then throw it away,” Mayorga said. “But now that can’t happen.”

The hospitals’ new practices fall in line with recently updated CDC recommendations that allow health care providers to repeatedly wear surgical masks to optimize the supply of protective gear. Mayorga said that means nurses and hospital staff can wear the less protective surgical masks while interacting with patients who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 but are not exhibiting serious symptoms.

It is recommended, however, that hospital staff wear full PPE — including an N95 respirator, a face shield, gown and gloves — during “high-risk situations,” including interactions with infected patients who are “coughing severely” or during certain medical procedures.

“N95s should be for those working on the front lines" — in the emergency room or intensive care units — "when there’s no telling when those workers will need it,” Mayorga said.

‘Taking on a life of its own’

In her effort to help with shortages, Ledyard-based volunteer Maze Stephan said she and her volunteers — whom she lovingly calls “maskateers” — have been diligently following predesigned patterns posted by Yale New Haven Health and Hartford HealthCare.

“There are very specific ways you need to make these masks,” Stephan said by phone Friday, explaining that masks must be made of 100% cotton or flannel and stitched in certain patterns, depending on where the mask is to be donated.

Stephan said, for example, the Yale New Haven Health system is asking for a “C cup” design, similar to that of an N95 respirator, while a less-complicated design may be suitable for a dentist's office or for patients going on a doctor's visit.

“One of the hardest parts has been making sure everyone knows exactly how these masks need to be made, because we don’t want someone to spend all this time on the masks for it not to be used,” she said.

After creating her Facebook group Mask Makers in Connecticut, Stephan and her volunteers have made hundreds of masks this week in an effort to fulfill a bevvy of orders they've received from local medical offices.

“And we are going to keep going for as long as it takes, as long as we are needed,” she said. “I can’t tell you how good it feels to stomp down on that (sewing machine) pedal and be doing something about this. We are doing something. This is who we are.”

Stephan said the group has been doubling its members daily.

“People want to help out, they want to be able to use their skills to do something,” she said. “It’s really taken on a life of its own, and that’s exactly what needs to happen right now.”

Stephan said she was inspired to make the masks by an episode of the Rachel Maddow Show, which called on sewers nationwide.

And because she is also a former mechanical metallurgical engineer and a former volunteer with Ledyard Ambulance, Stephan said she knew she could use her broad community connections and organizing skills to make an even bigger difference.

In addition to rallying volunteers and leading her own local effort — mostly in Ledyard — she has been building supply chains for her sewers, organizing her workers and managing distribution networks. In the evenings after her children are asleep, she said she puts every mask she receives through a vigorous disinfecting process: steaming each one at 212 degrees, then packing it an individual Ziplock bag and freezing it overnight before delivery.

Besides hospital workers, masks are being donated to dental offices, orthopedic offices, EMTs and firefighters, as well as patients with cancer, Stephan said.

“The craft community, we may be spread out, but we are also interwoven through what we do,” volunteer Jan Lichtenwalter of Waterford said Saturday at an outdoor team meeting Stephan organized at the Gales Ferry School to collect hundreds of masks made over the last couple days.

“Us crafters tend to have a good heart and love to step up. It almost feels meant to be that it would be us to help with something like this," she said.

m.biekert@theday.com

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