People Are Making Homemade Masks For Health Care Workers. Can Hospitals Really Use Them?

Mar 25, 2020

Social media feeds are filling up with images of small, pleated squares of fabric with elastic ear pieces. People around the country are taking to their sewing machines to provide much-needed face masks for the medical community.

Hospitals in Greater Cincinnati say their first need is donations of personal protective equipment such as N95 masks and surgical masks. However, at least three hospital groups - TriHealth, St. Elizabeth and Mercy - are accepting home-sewn mask covers and masks to stockpile in case there's a shortage of medical masks.

"Our goal is to purchase what we can of already-approved gear that we're used to using," says Lorel Studer, a specialty clinical nurse leader with TriHealth's stroke program and the hospital's liaison with those sewing homemade masks. "The other thing we want to to do is try to conserve what we have so that we don't waste it; and then the last plan would be to also use the CDC-recommended homemade masks."

That statement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - that homemade masks, scarves and bandanas could be used as a last resort - prompted Esther Kang of Cincinnati to take action. Once she had confirmation from a friend in the nursing field that masks were wanted, she launched Sew Masks 4 Cincy.

"I created the Facebook group at noon (March 20) thinking it would be great to get 15, maximum 50 people on board to sew a couple masks and it exploded," Kang says.

The Facebook group has more than 6,000 members as of Wednesday afternoon.

"The purpose of these sewn masks is to be used in conjunction with medical grade masks," Kang adds. "It's a sewn mask that someone made at home, which is incredibly kind and generous but we are all aware - the people who are sewing, our whole team - we're all aware that it's not a medical-grade mask."

TriHealth is working with Sew Masks 4 Cincy on the effort, with Studer coordinating. She says after vetting the various masks and ideas, the group decided on a few recommended patterns including one that can be used to cover the N95 mask and another surgical-style mask with a pocket which could hold some type of filter.

"We're collecting them now to probably use over top of these N95 masks - those have been approved by (TriHealth) leadership to use - but right now we're still stockpiling them. We don't have enough to cover everybody. ... a lot of people are making them themselves," says Studer, who estimated the hospital had about 250 homemade masks as of Wednesday afternoon.

"We're not using them today but I think the goal is to start using them by the end of the week to preserve some of these N95s."

Research is still being done at TriHealth around the country, she says, to see how long a single N95 mask can safely be used.

Studer says people who are sewing masks should not try to sterilize or sanitize them with Lysol or other solutions, though the fabric should be clean. They're working on an approved method for would-be recipients to launder the masks themselves.

"They're giving us some instructions about how to take care of our own scrubs and things like that, too, so there's several teams of people working on how to tell us all how to take care of our own belongings when we're finished with our shift."

Studer says staff members are thankful for this community outpouring of support.

"One big thing we all want everyone to know is how grateful we are that the community has come behind us to try to keep us safe so that we can continue to take good care of them."

Kang doesn't have a set number of masks she expects group members will be able to sew and provide, and the list of groups looking to get those masks isn't limited to hospitals.

"We have an extensive wait list of other front-line essential workers like nursing homes, hospices, oncologists ... and we've just been overwhelmed with requests. We got another half dozen this morning," she says. "In a perfect world, the hospitals will not need these masks. We're going to give them the number of masks that they need and then we're going to go down our wait list."

Can't Sew? You Can Still Participate

Sew Masks 4 Cincy on Thursday is launching an initiative for children and people who aren't able to sew masks. This includes a packet of activities for children and people who don't sew but want to show solidarity for the mission, Kang explains.

The group is encouraging people to print out its logo - or kids can print and color the logo - and place it in their window at home to spread the word and show appreciation. Kids are then encouraged to walk around their neighborhoods over the weekend and count the signs.

What Does Dr. Amy Acton Say About Homemade Masks?

During Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine's daily news conference Wednesday, Ohio's first lady, Fran DeWine addressed the idea of home-sewn masks. She held up a few as she talked.

"These are not what our hospitals need but they can help people in other areas to keep their germs to themselves," she said.

Dr. Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Department of Health, also talked about homemade masks.

"The masks are fascinating to me," she responded when asked about home sewing efforts. "This is an unprecedented time for us. I want to be honest with people at home, when we don't have enough PPE we are going to go by the old playbooks, the old but true things. That includes like in war situations when you've seen people use bandanas ... the CDC actually has guidance on using all sorts of things to protect yourself.

"We're not to that stage for the front-line health care worker doing an invasive procedure, but we are conserving."

She says people can wear a homemade mask to protect those around them. She also applauded the efforts of those who are making masks.

Hamilton County

"We at this time are not promoting or using those cloth masks," Hamilton County EMA Director Nick Crossley recently told Hamilton County commissioners. "I'm not a medical professional, but we have reached out actually just this morning to our to the Health Collaborative to see if we were accepting those or do anything with those and we are not. I'm not saying that they couldn't be some type of barrier, but the kind of personal protective equipment we're looking at is principally for the healthcare environment, as well as first responders. So, no personally I would not use them."

The Health Collaborative Christa Hyson tells WVXU it does not support mask donations.

"Hospitals – that I know of – are not currently using them. They are currently working on ways to conserve PPE. At this time, I cannot support or accept donations of cloth masks. Very nice thought, but not until we have a way to make sure they are effective and safe for our healthcare workforce," she says in an email.

"Everyone wants to do 'something' which I understand and it is very kind. However, not all hospitals are accepting them (lots of misinformation on social media)," Hyson says.