MARY REICHARD, HOST: Healthcare workers face a double whammy during this time: caring for others who are sick and protecting themselves from getting sick.
It’s a major challenge given the short supply of PPEs, by which I mean Personal Protective Equipment. Things like surgical masks, N95 respirator masks, face shields, and isolation gowns.
NICK EICHER, HOST: Most PPEs are mass produced in China. But COVID-19 closed those factories and left hospitals around the world scrambling to find new suppliers. Factories that normally make things like clothing are retooling to meet that need. But until then, volunteers are taking up needle and thread to fill the gap. WORLD correspondent Jenny Lind Schmitt has our story.
JENNY LIND SCHMITT, REPORTER: Victory Lonnquist is a 20-year veteran EMT with the fire department. She’s no stranger to disaster response. She joined relief efforts after the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
But the need now in her own backyard is completely different.
LONNQUIST: My friend reached out—she’s an ER nurse—and said she was doing her hospital shifts in a bandana. I drove up to Everett…and gave her our personal N95 mask, turned around, came home, and started the Nationwide Mask and PPE drive.
She calls the group Stop the Bug dot org. It started on March 19th with a Facebook page that quickly gained over 2,000 followers. Volunteers built a website to organize the donation and creation of PPE for Seattle-area hospitals.
Lonnquist says one of the biggest challenges in relief work is communication between groups to avoid duplicating efforts. So with help from local tech companies and universities, Stop the Bug is building a database and an app to help quickly match resources and needs nationwide.
LONNQUIST: A nurse or a doctor that is approved could just reach into their phone and put in, ‘we need 300,000 boxes of N95 masks’ that would appear on the database which would then ping all of us who are doing the donation drive so that we know, OK we need to send those N95s to this hospital, we could check it off and therefore not duplicate efforts.
But Lonnquist is also advocating an innovative approach to conserve the number of masks in the national stockpile. Working with the head of infectious disease at Seattle’s Harborview Hospital, she got patterns approved for home sewers.
LONNQUIST: What we’ve designed is a mask that goes over the N95 mask to extend the prolonged use. So that maybe you issue a doctor or a nurse one N95 mask for their whole shift. They put on the cloth mask over it. At the end of their shift the N95 is still intact and reusable and the cloth mask then gets thrown into the hospital linens, gets rewashed and used for the next shift.
Sewers all across the nation are answering the call in Washington state but also their own local hospitals. Mandi Landry lives in Pearland, Texas, a suburb of Houston.
AUDIO: [Sewing machine]
LANDRY: I first heard about the need for sewn masks on Facebook. Some nurses were on there talking about how they were already starting to run low, already being told to reuse stuff, and just mentioned the need: if anyone can sew, they said, we’d love some masks!
Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that when no face masks are available, healthcare personnel may use cloth masks or scarves as a last resort.
LANDRY: I can make about 10 an hour if it’s an uninterrupted hour, so it’s not massive amounts of masks, but at the same time it’s one of those things where everyone does the little bit that they can to help.
Everyone making homesewn masks knows they aren’t comparable to proper medical supplies. These efforts are a stop-gap measure necessary until local industries can reconfigure to make supplies.
Jeff Kaas runs a small furniture factory in Mukilteo outside of Seattle.
KAAS: We have tons of masks being made next door, tons of shields being made next door. And there’s a whole lot of joy.
When he heard about the need, he contacted a friend at a local hospital. Within days he had design specs from the hospital and a pattern in place. Employees stopped sewing upholstery and started making masks. The factory has also started producing plastic face shields.
But even at full capacity Kaas can only supply some local hospitals. So he’s made the patterns available online for other manufacturers. Factories in Indiana, Missouri, Arizona, and even abroad are retooling with his patterns.
Kaas says the key is finding hospitals willing to innovate.
KAAS: You need to partner with your local hospital friends and find risk takers who will break the systems in order to get the right things made that they need.
Landry says sewing masks reminds her of times in the past when ordinary citizens mobilized their efforts for a greater cause: Women rolling bandages during the Civil War, or people growing Victory Gardens during World War II.
LANDRY: I feel like that idea of us coming together and working together and doing whatever tiny little thing we can do is part of what’s going to get us all through this and to the other side.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jenny Lind Schmitt in King County, Washington.