When Jen Mulder heard last Thursday that UW Health was looking to form a list of local sewing aficionados willing to sew face masks for the hospital, she knew she could help.
Mulder owns Electric Needle, a sewing shop on Madison’s west side, so she shared the hospital’s request on the store’s Facebook page.
She could hear the interest in the shop on Friday. “Our phone never stopped ringing,” Mulder said. “There were hundreds of people that said, ‘Let me help,’ ‘Please, can I help?’”
By Monday, the post had been shared more than 1,400 times.
UW Health has since asked sewing enthusiasts to stand down while it determines exactly how this process might work.
“The response has been overwhelming,” UW Health said in a Facebook post on Friday. The post explained that for sanitation reasons, UW Health could not accept unsolicited items. “Please wait to hear from us before sewing any masks,” the post continued, saying that they would share specific guidelines that volunteers would need to follow in order for the hospital to accept their masks.
But a nurse friend of Mulder’s had said she wanted some for her own workplace, and Mulder knew that other workers in the community were looking for any way to reduce their chances of getting sick.
“It seems like smaller clinics and people doing Meals on Wheels and hospital chaplains and people working with homeless populations or food pantries are excited to have something because they can't order masks either right now,” Mulder said.
So Mulder and her fellow “sewists” set to creating reusable, washable fabric face masks designed to be worn over the usual face masks to extend their life by reducing the likelihood that the mask itself will be contaminated. The masks include two layers of quilting cotton and fabric ties.
Mulder invited the volunteers to drop off their masks in the depository at her store, a vestige from when it was a film-processing business. They’ve got about 50 so far, she said, including 25 she made herself.
‘Room for innovation’
Health authorities have mixed opinions about reusable fabric masks in the current epidemic. In a press conference last Friday, Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer with the state Department of Health Services’ Bureau of Communicable Diseases, said he’s still figuring out what role these homemade masks might play.
“We are sadly in a public health crisis, so there’s room for innovation,” Westergaard said, noting that they don't yet have the data to show whether cloth masks are as effective.
When a mask is worn for a long period of time, it might contaminate the user’s hands when they touch their face, which “might undermine some of our hand hygiene messages,” Westergaard said.
“We really need good science, but I think we’re in a situation where we need to explore all those possibilities,” Westergaard said, though he added that he didn't think Wisconsin was leaning toward cloth masks.
Meanwhile, government officials are still trying to get their hands on more disposable face masks.
On Friday, at the direction of Gov. Tony Evers, Wisconsin Emergency Management asked the Federal Emergency Management agency for help in securing protective equipment for police officers and firefighters who could be exposed to COVID-19 in the course of their duties.
According to a press release from the governor’s office, the state requested 50,000 non-surgical masks, 10,000 face shields, 11,000 coveralls, 3,000 N95 face masks, and 35,000 pairs of protective gloves.
This would be in addition to the state’s ongoing requests for more supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile. As of Friday, Wisconsin had received approximately 52,000 N95 face masks, 130,000 surgical masks, 25,000 face shields, among other items, the press release said.
New manufacturers, new standards to bridge supply gap
The competition for masks is stiff, with every state and country looking to stock up.
Medical supply manufacturers like 3M and Honeywell have announced plans to double or triple their production of N95 respirators but say it could take months for their output to hit desired levels, the New York Times reports.
“Because this is a shortage for everybody, we do need additional manufacturing capacity,” said Andrea Palm, secretary designee for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
Palm said they’d been hearing from manufacturers looking to help out, whether by distilling hand sanitizer or building face masks. “Our statewide response is very actively pursuing all of those opportunities,” she said.
But with supplies limited, officials are also advising health care providers on how to safely clean and reuse items like goggles and face masks to get the most use out of each one.
Medical professionals typically switch masks between each patient, Westergaard said, but panels of experts have agreed that the scarcity may necessitate a new standard.
“You want to make sure that everyone feels comfortable that we’re protecting people the best way we can, even if we don’t have the supply to do what we normally do,” Westergaard said.
“Prolonged use of a face mask, provided that it’s not contaminated and no one touches it, is an acceptable strategy even if it’s not our normal strategy.”
Sewists to the rescue
In other parts of the country, some hospitals have already called in the sewing reinforcements. St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids, Iowa — which, like Madison’s Meriter is a UnityPoint Health hospital — has its own innovation lab, called “generate @ St. Luke’s” which opened last November to help medical professionals, patients and community partners prototype and test creations that could improve patient care.
St. Luke clinicians worked with the generate lab to design “The Olson,” a mask named for “1930's legendary maker nurse” Lyla Mae Olson, author of 1947’s “Improvised Equipment in Home Care of the Sick.” They shared the sewing pattern and a demonstration video online, and according to the hospital’s website, the pattern is being shared around the world.
On its website, the hospital notes it has “an adequate supply” of masks but recognizes the world shortage and is “looking to be proactive in addressing the possibility of future supply challenges.
“Our hope is that we won't need them, but we must plan for the unknown.”
The mask’s modular design allows for the hospital to add in its own filters so the mask could replace disposable masks if needed. In the video, Rose Hedges, nursing research and innovation coordinator at St. Luke’s, said she’d researched various filters and found that HEPA vacuum filters provide a similar level of filtration to the N95 respirator masks.
The hospital will add filters, as well as hair bands to attach the mask and double-sided tape to seal the mask around the user’s face, after volunteers drop off the masks.
Ready to sew
Back in Madison, Mulder and other locals are standing ready, armed with their sewing machines, to turn out hundreds of masks for local hospitals as soon as they get the order.
Electric Needle is still collecting donated masks at its depository, though it’s unclear how the shelter-in-place order that takes effect Tuesday — closing the store and directing people to stay at home except for essential travel — might change things.
Mulder is also calling on members of the sewing community to try to increase the mask supply in other ways, such as by requesting the release of more masks from the National Stockpile and asking President Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act to require respirator manufacturers to increase production.
She knows Madison-area hospitals might opt for an industrial sewing operation that can crank out large numbers of identical masks rather than a wider community effort, and she knows she could instead turn her efforts toward hospitals in other states. Already one assisted living community in Minnesota asked her for 200 masks.
“I'm trying to keep it local … I said, ‘I will put you on our list, however, we're gonna try to serve our immediate community here first.’”
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