As doctors, nurses and other front-line medical workers say they’re desperately short of crucial protective gear to protect them against the highly contagious coronavirus, the crafting community is stepping into the breach.
Coast to coast, a grassroots army equipped with sewing machines and online tutorials is mobilizing to churn out cloth face masks to donate to hospitals and other health care organizations amid crisis-level scarcity of protective gear including paper surgical masks and the tight-fitting respirator masks known as N95 masks.
In Massachusetts, one of the largest of these efforts is being organized by three siblings in their 20s, at their parents’ kitchen table in Lincoln.
Hailey, Andy, and Hannah Rosenblatt got their start when their father, Mike, a surgeon, came home from work Wednesday evening and challenged them to organize a few people who can sew to make fabric face masks.
Within a few hours of posting a request for volunteers on Burlington Patch, a local news site, the trio had more than 700 people signed up. Within 24 hours, more than 3,000 volunteers from around the country and even Canada wanted to help. The incoming volume continued at such a pace that Google shut down the online form. Now they’re organizing via a Facebook group, Masks for Massachusetts.
“We know the power of social media. We didn’t quite know how far reaching this would be,” said Hannah Rosenblatt, 22, a senior at Northeastern University in Boston.
The siblings found a mask template on Pinterest and had a crafty family friend make modifications recommended by their father and mother, both surgeons at a Boston area hospital, who didn’t want their employer named because it is not involved in the mask-making effort. Three local seamstresses completed a successful trial run using the instructions the Rosenblatts provided.
Now the siblings are deep in the organization phase, collecting fabric and developing a distribution strategy with designated town coordinators to get materials to nearby volunteers to do the sewing. Part of their goal is to create an organizational model that other communities can copy to get their own mask-sewing efforts up and running.
“So this can be replicated in any community in America,” said Andy, a 24-year-old research associate at a local hospital. “It can really be a national effort.”
Their effort mirrors similar endeavors around the country. On Facebook and Instagram, crafters are documenting their endeavors and inspiring others. Cambridge’s Gather Here posted a video tutorial on Instagram for its devotees who want to make masks, and said it will share details of a drop location for finished masks soon.
Deb Walz, 52, a seamstress who lives in Melrose, got sewing after a friend who is a nurse shared concerns about dwindling supplies. She found instructions online and made some masks with material she had at home.
The next day, she thought, “We need to be doing more,” and bought more fabric. Then she asked for donations on a community Facebook group so she could keep sewing — raising $800 and finding more people who wanted to help.
“We’ve got a whole production going here,” she said on Saturday. Fabric was getting washed at the houses of three volunteers, a relative was ironing cut fabric, a friend was cutting, and so on. Walz is aiming to make a few thousand masks; she’ll deliver them to various hospitals in the area via personal connections at each place.
“Sitting behind my sewing machine is therapy for me,” she said.
Similar efforts are popping up all over the country.
One Seattle-based hospital system, Providence St. Joseph Health, has created kits, complete with specialty medical-grade material, to send to willing volunteers to make 100 masks each, an effort they’ve dubbed the 100 million mask challenge. (They’ve also posted instructions on how to construct the homemade plastic face shields their own staff have been making because of shortages.)
Deaconess Health System, based in Indiana, posted a plea for volunteers — along with online instructions — to make cotton fabric masks, but received such an outpouring of assistance that they’re now telling interested crafters to reach out to other hospitals or health facilities to see if they need masks.
The growing shortages of protective gear led the Centers for Disease Control to post guidance last week that said “as a last resort” front-line health care workers could use homemade masks like bandanas or scarves.
“Prior to modern disposable masks, washable fabric masks were standard use for hospitals,” Deaconess in Indiana said on its online call for sewing volunteers, quoting one of its patient safety and infection prevention officials. “We will be able to sterilize these masks and use them repeatedly as needed. While it’s less than ideal, we want to do our best to protect our staff and patients during this pandemic.”
For the Rosenblatts, their project aims to provide masks that can be used in operating room settings so hospitals can preserve the more protective masks for those taking care of COVID-19 patients.
The siblings have secured donations from Joann Fabric Stores for some of their materials, after their parents connected with the company’s CEO, Wade Miquelon, via his wife, a surgeon at Cleveland Clinic.
Joann had already started various efforts to help this quick-spreading medical gear cottage industry, including donating materials and announcing plans to open its classrooms in 500 stores around the country for customers to sew masks, scrubs, and plastic face shields using donated store inventory. They have several tutorials online.
“We can mobilize literally hundreds of thousands of our customers who sew everyday,” said Miquelon.
For the Rosenblatt siblings, their initial goal is to get one yard of fabric to local volunteers to start with, which should make about 16 masks. They had about 40 yards of material to send out this first weekend, “but there’s a lot more fabric coming so we’ll hopefully be producing thousands and thousands” of masks, said Andy.
They have one hospital that wants the finished products, Emerson Hospital in Concord, and are talking to more.
They’ll deploy the instruction manual on how to make the masks on their Facebook page. Joann will also share a version of their template with its customers, along with a video tutorial, said Hailey Rosenblatt, 25, who is studying for a master’s degree in public health at Columbia University in New York City. (With classes set to move online for the rest of the semester, she’ll be home for a while.)
They’ve commandeered the family’s Ping-Pong table for their prototype design efforts and cutting fabric. “My sister was looking forward to beating my dad at Ping-Pong while she was home,” said Hailey, joking, “but we probably won’t be able to use it for its intended use for a while.”