We know the way people contract COVID-19: via coronavirus-laden droplets that somebody has coughed, sneezed or simply breathed out.
That’s why millions of Americans who are handy with needle and thread, including many in Clark County, have been eagerly making fabric face masks — either for their own personal use, or to donate to hospitals and health care providers.
“We’re extremely busy with people coming in to get patterns and fabrics,” said Laura Matthiesen of customer service at the JoAnn Fabrics store on Highway 99 in Hazel Dell. Matthiesen said mask patterns and fabrics are free for the asking at JoAnn — but only as long as supplies last, and they never last long.
But do homemade, fabric face masks really block the transmission of COVID-19? Science is still catching up with this new disease, so official information and recommendations about how to protect yourself and others seem to evolve by the day.
Federal officials initially dismissed widespread public mask-wearing but are reconsidering in light of new data that suggests people without symptoms can carry the virus and infect others.
Surgical-grade, N95 masks are the best defense against COVID-19 because they block tiny coronavirus particles, but even those masks aren’t perfect. They’re called N95 because they block 95 percent of particulates, not all of them. N95 masks form an airtight seal over the wearer’s nose and mouth. Other surgical masks don’t create a tight seal and are less effective. Homemade fabric masks are presumed so much less effective that they’ve barely ever been studied.
“No easy, definitive, and affordable test can demonstrate effectiveness,” states a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website about protective masks made out of heavy cotton T-shirts.
But even DIY masks fashioned out of T-shirts or bandannas seem like common sense to people eager to contribute during this national emergency — and to protect themselves when they head out on essential trips like grocery shopping.
“They say it’s better than nothing and that sounds good to me,” said Jaynie Roberts, a Hazel Dell quilter who’s been sewing masks for family and friends.
It also sounds good to some top medical professionals.
“Under this emergency situation we’re in, it seems, in our view, hard to argue against covering your face,” Yale public health professor Robert Hecht, the co-author of a recent article about face masks, told The New York Times. The Times has reported that other nations are recommending that people make masks to wear in public or while grocery shopping — not because hard data is in, but simply because it seems like a no-brainer.
Risk of backfire
Even while inching toward endorsing the idea, health authorities have cautioned that widespread public mask wearing is still no substitute for social distancing, and could have serious unintended consequences, including lethal results for some and slower progress back to normal for all.
For one thing, it could result in an even greater shortage among the medical professionals and first responders who need medical masks the most.
Also, homemade masks — which aren’t surgical-grade and don’t form a tight seal — could promote a false sense of security and greater carelessness in public.
“Homemade fabric masks, and other nonmedical masks, are not a replacement for staying home and limiting contact with others,” said Marissa Armstrong of Clark County Public Health. “Masks also do not replace the need to frequently wash hands with soap and water, avoid touching your face with unwashed hands and stay away from people who are sick. These remain the best ways to stay healthy and prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
But if you do wear a fabric mask, Armstrong said, wash your hands before putting it on and after taking it off. Don’t touch your face with unwashed hands when adjusting the mask. Wash the mask after each use.
“Fabric masks should not be considered reliable protection, but they may provide some benefit,” Armstrong said.
Eileen Trestain, an expert seamstress and coordinator of the Fort Vancouver Costume Shop, is used to leading a crew of sewing volunteers who make and repair period clothing for historical re-enactors. But since all public gatherings and activities at the fort are on hold, she and an expanded crew of motivated volunteers are now working in their homes on medical masks. As of last week they’d already made hundreds, Trestain said.
“I’ve been watching the international news because I want to know what’s happening in the rest of the world. There are countries that have been through horrible experiences with outbreaks before, and those people wear masks every day,” she said. “We don’t do that yet, but maybe we should.”
Some of these masks are intended for hospitals and clinics that accept homemade equipment donations; others are for friends and neighbors. Since dogs and cats don’t get the coronavirus, some volunteers are donating homemade masks to pet hospitals and animal rescue organizations, freeing up veterinary professionals to give their higher-tech protective gear to human hospitals and clinics where they’re most needed.
But first, Trestain picks up all the donations — from volunteers’ porches, where she waves through windows but stays distant — and takes them all back to her home for a sanitizing three-hour machine wash and dry. Then she packs everything in plastic and makes deliveries. She’s always wearing her own mask, of course.
“If everyday people can cover their faces and not aspirate the virus out, that may help protect the whole community,” Trestain said.
She did a lot of exploring online to find instructions for masks that are both easy to make and serious enough for real use by medical professionals. She wound up adapting several different instructions she found, she said, and means to get those instructions posted soon on the Fort Vancouver website.
While some hospitals, like Legacy Salmon Creek, have officially said that they won’t accept homemade face masks, Trestain has personally received “many private requests from medical personnel who work at hospitals, including Legacy, who say they don’t have enough,” she said.
Meanwhile, PeaceHealth Southwest Washington has even posted its own instructions for making masks it will accept at www.peacehealth.org/coronavirus. Scroll down to “community-specific donations” and find the tab for Vancouver. That’s where detailed mask instructions are lurking.
To be very clear, homemade face masks are considered a last-resort, scientifically unproven level of protection for individuals and the community.
But any additional community protection seems like wisdom to Roberts, whose homemade, cartoony masks for friends and family feature cute chickens and zombies.
“If you’re a carrier, at least you’re coughing into your own face mask,” she said.