Title

I Can Sew Homemade Masks. Will Hospitals Use Them Against Coronavirus?

The following article was originally published March 22, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.

LAist and KPCC logos

Story by Josie Huang

 

Flo Spiegel, a stitcher from Santa Clarita, is making masks for health care workers out of leftover fabric from her toddler's dresses. | Courtesy of Flo Spiegel
Flo Spiegel, a stitcher from Santa Clarita, is making masks for health care workers out of leftover fabric from her toddler's dresses. | Courtesy of Flo Spiegel

Flo Siegel timed herself. Without major interruption from her toddler, she can sit at her sewing machine and crank out 10 or so face masks an hour.

"I know there's been such a mask shortage," said Siegel, a first-grade teacher from Santa Clarita. "So I just figured this is one small thing I can do."

Around Los Angeles, stitchers and sew shops are using this time of self-quarantine to make masks to give away to health care workers increasingly desperate for protection from the coronavirus.

Siegel said she has already taken orders for 100 masks from individuals, including 25 for an ER nurse in Twentynine Palms.

But will medical institutions, with their strict protocols, accept homemade masks?

The answer depends on the hospital. But more are starting to say "yes."

"Go ahead and do it," said Dr. Stephanie Hall, chief medical officer at Keck Hospital of USC. "Later down the road, it'll be ready to go. And if we need to use it, we'll use it."

Flo Spiegel's 2.5-year-old daughter likes to sit on her lap while she's sewing masks for health care workers. | Courtesy of Flo Spiegel
Flo Spiegel's 2.5-year-old daughter likes to sit on her lap while she's sewing masks for health care workers. | Courtesy of Flo Spiegel, by tedgar

At Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood, spokeswoman Molly Lawson said the preference is for unused, commercially produced medical-grade masks, but "homemade masks are also acceptable."

Meanwhile, at UCLA Medical Center, officials are "establishing processes to accept donations while ensuring appropriate quality control," according to a statement.

Enough hospitals around the country are taking DIY masks that students at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health have started a list. In Southern California, the locations of hospitals that take them range from Encino to Los Angeles and Fontana.

 

WHY HOSPITALS ARE HAVING A CHANGE OF HEART

While none of the hospital officials we spoke with said their personnel have started using homemade masks, they worry that day will soon come.

Hall said the shortage of masks stems from a disrupted supply chain in China and panic buying in the United States.

"As the news of the pandemic moved forward, a lot of people were making orders through online vendors and completely stripped our supply," she said.

Across the country, doctors and nurses have shared on social media how they've had to disinfect dirty masks or extend their use for days.

Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George works on creating masks at Stitch House in Dorchester, Mass. to donate to local hospitals. | Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images
Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George works on creating masks at Stitch House in Dorchester, Mass. to donate to local hospitals. | Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images

Vice President Mike Pence said on Saturday that the federal government had ordered hundreds of millions of N95 masks, which are the most effective at filtering out droplets and small particles.

But some hospital systems aren't waiting. In Washington state, the Providence hospital chain is providing medical-grade material for home stitchers for what is being called the 100 Million Mask Challenge.

Meanwhile, hospitals in states like IndianaNew York and Ohio are willing to accept homemade masks made of cotton from community volunteers.

At USC's Keck, the hospital currently has about a week's supply of medical-grade masks, Hall said. Shipments of supplies continue to trickle in, but Hall questioned whether the pace can keep up with demand.

She said right now her hospital epidemiologist and other infectious disease experts are studying homemade masks to see "what is the best way to use it that's safe and effective?"

 

'A LAST RESORT,' AND WITH A FACE SHIELD

In light of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention issued guidance on homemade masks (i.e. bandanas, scarves) saying they can be used while treating patients as "a last resort," and ideally under a plastic face shield similar to what you'd see on a welder.

That's left some expert sewers wondering if they should help — and how. Our resident stitcher Sharon McNary, who covers infrastructure, put her skills to the test and performed with aplomb as you can see here.

In Altadena, Anne Marie Bannon and a handful of sewing friends have teamed up to fill orders for health care workers and others whose work involves a lot of personal contact. An order has already come in for 30 masks from a domestic violence shelter.

Bannon, an author, said she thought the cloth masks would be an improvement over the bandanas the CDC had suggested.

"It may not be as big a help as I'd like to think," Bannon said. "But at the same time, it's better than nothing."

Over in Frogtown at Suay Sew Shop, co-owner Heather Pavlu aspires to design a mask that will offer higher protection than even a tight-weave cotton. She's working with her team of professional sewers to produce cone-shaped masks similar to the N95's that fit more snugly around the mouth and nose than a flat mask.

There would be room to fit a filter inside the mask; Pavlu plans to test several different types.

"The filter is going to be what makes the level of protection higher," she said. "We're really trying to focus on something that'll be really effective because if these masks that everybody's producing and then wearing aren't effective, then we're going to see major problems from it."

The stitchers at Suay shop in Frogtown plan to produce 10,000 masks in a week. | Courtesy Suay Shop
The stitchers at Suay shop in Frogtown plan to produce 10,000 masks in a week. | Courtesy Suay Shop

Pavlu's goal is to make 10,000 masks in a week, and she's sought help through crowd-funding.

In less than two days, more than 740 donors had given nearly $43,000 on GoFundMe as of Sunday afternoon. The money will cover the labor to make the masks, and keep Suay's sewers employed. Their orders for clothing and home goods have dried up in the outbreak.

"This might be a simple project for them and their sewing level," Pavlu said of the sewers who are mostly immigrants from Thailand, Mexico and Central America. "But they're able to make something that someone needs immediately."

Pavlu said the plan is to share her mask pattern with the sewing community once she settles on the best one.

 

HARRY POTTER AND GAME OF THRONES MASKS

N95s are the gold standard in protecting health care workers from particles and droplets in the air. | Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images
N95s are the gold standard in protecting health care workers from particles and droplets in the air. | Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Flo Siegel is thinking about how she can improve the fit of her masks so they can better filter out particles. She's making adjustments to a pattern she created from watching YouTube tutorials and hanging out on Facebook sewing groups.

"Masks with wire in them can be pinched better along the nose," she said.

Siegel knows that not all hospitals may want her creations, but she figures her masks can be used by others who have to work every day with the public, like pharmacy technicians, grocery employees and delivery people.

If they use her masks, that frees up the commercially made ones for the health care workers.

Siegel has large swaths of fabric she uses to make her 2 1/2-year-old daughter's dresses, including bright and busy patterns from Harry Potter and Game of Thrones.

"I just figure the happier that we can make these, the better it'll be for everybody's morale," she said.

Though Dr. Stephanie Hall of USC's Keck Hospital said she hopes her medical teams never have to depend on homemade masks, she was heartened by the enthusiasm of their makers.

"It's a message that we're in this together and people care about each other," Hall said. "That's the kind of thing that keeps us going when things get tough."

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading