BY JON O’CONNELL
Health workers in some hospital departments aren’t required to wear masks, and with an ever tightening supply, some nurses and aides can’t wear them even if they wanted to.
With anxiety over COVID-19 running high among patients and clinical staff, an army of volunteers convened — at a safe distance from each other, isolated in their own homes — this past weekend to stitch together as many reusable, homemade face masks as possible.
They want to give hospital workers a little more protection against COVID-19, and some peace of mind that they’re slowing its spread.
The state Health Department tallied 108 new cases Sunday, bringing the statewide total to 479, with seven in Luzerne County and six in Lackawanna County.
The Lackawanna and Luzerne Medical Societies and other partners are coordinating a campaign, open to anyone with a sewing machine and some free time, called the “Masked Bandits.”
Two Scranton business owners are assembling kits so that volunteers don’t have to scrounge for suitable material.
“We have a lot of extra supplies on hand,” said Katie Gilmartin at Nada & Co., a company she owns with her mother, Nada Gilmartin.
“We have always been avid sewers and have an extensive stock of remnants of fabrics from years gone by,” she said. “We are happy to be putting them to good use. A lot of them are bright and fun prints that hopefully will add a little levity to this very difficult situation.”
Face masks shouldn’t be considered true personal protective equipment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But in a pinch, they can stop larger droplets and airborne particles bearing disease from entering the lungs and planting infection.
The CDC considers them a last-ditch solution along with bandanas.
The best masks, the elusive N95 respirators, provide the highest level of protection, and form a tight seal around the nose and mouth, blocking out 95% of airborne particles when used correctly.
The world’s supply of N95 masks hit the floor when factories across China, the world’s largest producer of personal protective medical supplies, shut down as the health crisis spread.
Chinese factories are coming back online again, and U.S. manufacturers, namely 3M and Prestige Ameritech, are ramping up to make millions of masks each week, but it could take months until production meets demand.
So face masks, though inferior to N95 masks, can go a long way to help conserve the available supply.
For volunteers who want to get started, Tonyehn Verkitus, president of the medical societies, asks everyone to use new fabric. They’re following a pattern found online at www.turbanproject.com/face-masks-pdfs.
Don’t wash the masks when finished, she said. Hospital staff will inspect and sanitize them before distributing.
Verkitus doesn’t believe patient-facing health workers, such as surgeons and nurses handling cases where N95 masks are recommended, would wear their homemade masks.
But lots of other people who don’t come into direct contact with patients could use the extra protection on the job.
Verkitus doesn’t have a target number in mind to make.
“Given the fact that there are so many shortages around the country, I would imagine that the need will continue for a while,” she said.
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Volunteer to make masks
Volunteers who wish to make masks or help in other ways can contact the Lackawanna and Luzerne County Medical Societies at firstname.lastname@example.org for drop-off locations. To Contact Nada & Co. about mask-making kits, email email@example.com. For instructions on making face masks at home, visit www.turbanproject.com/face-masks-pdfs.