During the first and second world wars, citizens grew victory gardens to feed hungry populations. The idea carried forward into the COVID-19 outbreak – but this time, people are making protective face masks.
At least three homemade mask-making efforts have sprung up in La Plata County to help health care professionals and community members protect themselves from the virus.
La Plata County reported 23 positive cases of the illness as of Monday afternoon. Public officials say to prepare for the long haul – cases will likely increase over coming weeks even with the state’s stay-at-home order. Meanwhile, health care institutions have sent out community requests for supplies, such as homemade masks.
Anxious residents, cooped up in their homes, have turned to their sewing supplies to help.
“We just want to stay ahead of the curve and make masks available to those who want them,” said Patty Dione, volunteer coordinator for We Sew Masks, a Durango group making homemade masks. “And we’re going to need a lot of volunteers.”
The group of about 40 volunteers is ramping up its operation after it received a request from the Tucson Veterans Affairs Medical Center. They’ve already distributed about 200 masks to doctor’s offices, Animas Surgical Hospital and rehabilitation centers, Dione said.
Just as people around the world have started making their own masks, other Durango residents started doing the same completely unaware of each other.
Amber Morris, owner of the Wildhorse Saloon, heard Four Corners Nursing Home and Durango Urgent Care needed masks, so she turned mask-making into a home-schooling project with her children. She’s had requests come from emergency responders and grocery stores.
Kate Burke, a Durango resident, started making masks after she saw requests from Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez and Durango Fire Protection District. She gave masks to Bayfield Middle School’s food distribution program and might give others to Upper Pine River Fire Protection District.
“We don’t know what’s coming,” Burke said. “One way to ease that anxiety is to actually do something.”
The volunteers know that their homemade masks aren’t as protective as the N95 masks used by health care workers, they said.
N95 respirators, regulated by the federal government, block at least 95% of very small, 0.3 micron, test particles, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
The volunteers make their masks out of cotton bed sheets, pillow cases and donated materials, often with a slit so people can add their own protective lining.
Burke based her materials on a 2013 Cambridge study that tested different household materials and their effectiveness in blocking particles, about the size of the influenza virus, in the air.
Cotton was 51% to 69% effective, depending on the microorganism. Vacuum filters were even more effective, filtering up to 94% of the microorganisms, according to the study.
Burke has made about 20 masks.
“Frankly, I really hate sewing,” she said. “There’s a lot of people that love it. ... I hope word has reached them because I am just fuddling along.”
We Sew Masks volunteers are some of those people. They worked with doctors and researchers to develop their face masks. They make “nurse masks” with pathogen filters and simple cotton masks, for going to the grocery store or nursing homes, Dione said.
They’re looking for volunteers to help cut materials and sew masks. Interested residents can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org to pick up kits with instructions and enough materials to sew 10 to 20 masks.
It’s hard to tell if making protective masks opens a liability for volunteers, said Burke, who is an attorney. Good Samaritan laws protect people, particularly at the scene of an emergency, but it’s unclear how they apply when the whole community has declared a state of emergency.
She decided to add notes to the masks explaining they don’t offer full protection from the new coronavirus, and she preferred giving them to health care professionals or first responders.
Dione hoped the question of liability wouldn’t deter volunteers. Her main concern is the lack of supplies for people on the front lines of the fight against the virus.
“If we sit back and do nothing, I’m concerned about that,” she said.
Mask-making is one of a few ways that people can help when they can’t leave their house or spend time with groups of people, especially during long, idle days and a stressful time, Burke and Morris said.
“It’s a good way for me to spend the time and energy that I have,” Burke said. “Even more important ... if there’s ever a time to help out wherever you possibly can, this is it.”