DIYers Rally to Make 'Last Resort' Face Masks for Health Care Workers

3 min
Tieks by Gavrieli, a Los Angeles-based shoemaker, has retrained employees to make masks from sewing machines and launched an online campaign teaching people how to make the masks for donation at home, after learning of a need for masks in hospitals during the battle against COVID-19. The cotton masks are intended for use by medical workers in non-coronavirus situations. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Across the Bay Area and beyond, crafty people have mobilized to make face masks for health care workers, who are reporting dire protective equipment shortages. There’s a whole lot of heart in the effort, but are these homemade jobs truly suited to front line health care workers confronting COVID-19? That depends on how desperate they are.

Social media feeds are filled with calls for money, materials and talent to help deliver personal protective equipment to health care workers: from purpose-built organizations like Make Masks, to longstanding craft groups like the South Bay Area Modern Quilt Guild, to social service-minded outfits like the Eden Area Interfaith Council.

Businesses with manufacturing capacity are also caught up in the the fervor to donate goods and services. Last week, Gap, the local parent company of a host of clothing brands, announced plans to shift some of its textile production capacity to serve the public good during this pandemic.

On a less industrial scale, Rough Linen of San Rafael is sending about 200 linen face masks a week to Kaiser Permanente San Rafael Medical Center and to local firefighters and law enforcement officers. The company typically makes bedding and tableware. But CEO Daiva Finell says, "We are going to be making [face masks] until there is no need."

Danielle Mallory manages marketing at Chrome Industries, a Portland-based company that makes messenger bags, backpacks and cycling apparel. In other words, the company's sewers are familiar working with a durable fabrics. "The shortage of masks is really awful," says Mallory. "We wanted to challenge ourselves to help."

After shuttering its production of "Ragtime" to conform with shelter-in-place guidelines, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley donated N95 masks and nitrile gloves the company typically uses for set construction. But the crew wanted to do more.

"It made sense to produce these much-needed items and keep our workers on the payroll as long as possible," wrote Jill Bowers, the costume director. "The pleas for help with protective gear and supplies were exploding in my feeds, especially Something We Can Do. There are several popular patterns circulating. We’re making the pleated style masks — some with elastic loops that go over the ears and some with ties. This style allows us to make the most with the time and materials we have on hand."

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In a similar vein, Monica Thakkar, Opera San Jose's artistic administrator, says the company’s costume director, Alyssa Oania, sidelined by the cancellation of this spring’s "Magic Flute," is instead churning out 70 face masks a week on her home sewing machine.

"It’s not a huge contribution, but we’re doing what we can to help our community right now," Thakkar says. Thakker says the Valley Medical Center Foundation is taking the masks to distribute to health care workers who are not involved in patient care.

"You know, the fabric bolts in our costume shop are not medical grade," Thakkar acknowledged. But she added, "At least you have a physical barrier" to help protect against droplets of COVID-19.

As recently as March 17, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended homemade masks for health care workers as a “last resort.”

As NPR has reported, making medical-grade face masks is a tricky business. They require a material called melt-blown fabric, an extremely fine mesh of synthetic polymer fibers, for the inner filtration layer. Each machine that makes this fabric costs more than $4 million.

But given widely reported shortages, public health students from UC Berkeley found 40 hospitals in California currently accepting homemade donations.

It's one alternative for hospitals and clinics worried about running out of conventional supplies if/when a surge of COVID-19 patients hits in the coming weeks.

That said, N95 respirator masks are still the go-to choice at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. Dr. Sanjay Kurani, the hospital's medical director, explained, "Out of an abundance of caution, we're using the N95 mask anytime we think somebody has potentially COVID-19, is going through testing or is COVID-19 positive." That's because, like the name suggests, N95 face masks filter out about 95% of airborne particles.

Dr. Sanjay Kurani, hospital medical director at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, models a plastic face shield worn over a surgical mask.
Dr. Sanjay Kurani, hospital medical director at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, models a plastic face shield worn over a surgical mask. (Courtesy of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.)

He added that face masks are just one part of a personal protection outfit that health care professionals ideally wear when dealing with patients who have COVID-19. Gloves, gowns, face shields and goggles are also essential.

Makers Want in on the Action, Too

When it comes to rigid plastics, 3D printers come to mind. Makers of 3D printers, like Hewlett-Packard, are proving more than happy to help would-be printers of health care equipment.

This week, the Valley Medical Center Foundation and the Sunnyvale nonprofit Maker Nexus announced an initiative to produce 3,000 face shields a week.

Volunteers hashed out the specifications with hospital clinicians at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. Dr. Kurani, for one, is thrilled.

"We don’t need to go out to our usual vendors, who are right now overwhelmed," he says. "We can actually go out to the community and use them."

It’s a bit of a rag-tag army marshaling this fight, but when you see social media posts from health care workers donning garbage bags to protect themselves, you can see why people who know how to make things want to help.

Do Health Care Providers Want My Cloth Masks, Then?

The short answer is yes. Chris Wilder is CEO of the aforementioned Valley Medical Center Foundation, which raises dollars, and these days, supplies, for three hospitals and 11 clinics and more in Santa Clara County — one of the hardest hit Bay Area counties during the coronavirus pandemic.

"There are so many needs within a health care system the size of Santa Clara County's. You know, there are so many nonprofits that are helping to distribute food and supplies and keep people healthy in many, many ways outside of the hospital. And so these masks are absolutely going to be used. We need them. The bottom line is everyone should keep sewing," Wilder said.

So, Where Do I Send These Things?

It helps to connect with a group that's already established a pipeline of product donations to facilities that want the materials. These groups are also helping to direct people with cloth to people with sewing machines, and coordinating pick ups and drop offs.

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