As cases of the novel coronavirus flood and overburden hospitals around the country, rampant shortages of personal protective equipment — masks, gloves, goggles and gowns — are on the horizon.
Maggie Carlson is a registered nurse based in Eugene who travels frequently on medical missions with eye-care groups. Her mission with local group Give Me Sight Foundation was canceled, and with a sudden surplus of time and material she started to sew surgical masks with help from her neighbors who would usually be in a walking group together.
“I saw (materials) in all my bins one day and thought, ‘Gosh, there must be something I can do with that,'” Carleson said. “It took me a few days to come up with some good patterns, and then once the CDC put out that pattern to everybody, then that was the ticket and we started making them.”
Carlson and her crew have made a few hundred masks so far and sent stacks of their hand-sewn masks to PeaceHealth for health care workers, Lane County Public Works for countywide redistribution, and up to Portland to an ER nurse.
The neighborhood group is one of many in Lane County taking to sewing machines to help fill the PPE gap that is expected to only grow in the coming weeks.
Marley’s Monsters, a Eugene business usually dedicated to making zero-waste essential home products, has retooled a portion of its operations to make masks. Employees at the local JOANN Fabrics and Crafts and Piece by Piece Fabrics confirmed they’ve had customers buying fabric for mask-making purposes, and other groups have been dropping of their contributions to Rep. Peter DeFazio’s Eugene office.
However, the need for and usability of these masks in place of the more effective N95 respirators is debated.
So far, Lane County has received more than 101,000 donated pieces of personal protection equipment, including masks, gowns and eye protection.
“We still need more,” said county spokesman Jason Davis. “That’s really the tip of the iceberg as far as need.”
But he said hand-sewn masks are not, at this time, necessary for the medical community. While he advised people who are sick to wear coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the masks don’t serve to protect those at risk for contracting the disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most face masks provide only barrier protection against droplets, including large respiratory particles, and do not effectively filter small particles from the air or prevent leakage around the edge of the mask when the user inhales.
“We want to respect people’s help and willingness to help,” Davis said. “The No. 1 way to help right now is to stay home.”
Some groups are opting to put donations of hand-sewn masks into storage, as hospitals may become desperate enough to use whatever is available.
“Today, PeaceHealth Oregon has an appropriate supply of masks through our regular medical equipment supply channels,” said Sherri Buri McDonald, a Eugene-area PeaceHealth spokeswoman. “We have received an outpouring of offers from the community to donate hand-sewn masks. We greatly appreciate these offers and are accepting donations … for potential future use.”
White Bird Clinic is not using homemade masks but is reviewing the potential. Ben Brubaker, a coordinator at White Bird Clinic, said clinics weighing the use of hand-made material for PPE are in a pinch. While the CDC put out information about alternative masks, those masks aren’t officially approved PPE, potentially making clinics and hospitals liable for the spread of the virus.
“We’re getting no guidance from any government source on what is legitimate PPE,” Burbaker said. “If a client gets sick and they point at that mask, who’s defending me legally at that point?”
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quietly updated its guidance on masks, saying hospitals that run low on surgical masks should consider ways to reuse them or to use them through an entire shift. And if hospitals run out, the CDC said, scarfs or bandannas could be used “as a last resort,” though some health officials warned cloth masks might not work.
Mary Dale Peterson, president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists and chief operating officer at a Corpus Christi, Texas, children’s hospital, said she declined volunteers’ offers to make masks. She said construction and manufacturing industries instead should donate or sell the high-grade masks they have to hospitals.
“It would be only an extremely, extremely last resort that I would have my staff” wear homemade masks, she said. “I really hope it doesn’t get to that point in the U.S.”
At the Missouri Quilt Museum in Hamilton, Missouri, board members asked local hospitals if masks were needed and “they emphatically said yes,” said director Dakota Redford. Soon other health care providers, including ambulance crews and nursing homes, were requesting masks.
“This has been a true grassroots effort that has exploded across the country in the quilting world,” Redford said.
Megan Fields, an administrator at River Road Medical Group in Eugene, said a group of volunteers and employees has begun mask-making endeavors. While there’s an ongoing debate about how useful the masks are, soon there may not be a choice.
“Something is going to be better than nothing,” Fields said.
Contact reporter Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick at Tatiana@registerguard.com or 541-338-2454, and follow her on Twitter @TatianaSophiaPT. Want more stories like this? Subscribe to get unlimited access and support local journalism.