Volunteers work with hospitals to make emergency face masks for workers

Amid the shortage, groups are designing masks that can supplement protective gear.

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By Maxine Lipner

It was the last thing Sabrina Roffman of New City, New York, wanted to hear: In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, local medical facilities were running out of protective face masks. Her husband, an ear, nose and throat doctor, and the staffs of two area hospitals could be in jeopardy. She couldn’t sleep thinking about it.

“I was waking up saying to myself, ‘These physicians, including my husband, they’re exposed,’” Roffman told TODAY. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God, these people are going to get sick and, if they do, who’s going to take care of (the patients).’”

Hoping to help, she reached out to her friend, Tina LoPresti, of Haverstraw, New York, who runs a social media group. Together, they launched a project to make additional masks for the health care workers. The idea was to craft masks that would offer at least some protection, with supplies they could access at home. They invited others in the community to join their efforts and started a Facebook group on March 18 with just 45 members.

In just a weeks’ time, the group, dubbed The Masked Warriors Project, grew to more than 1,400 members, pulling together to help two Rockland County hospitals with mask shortages. The group has already sewn hundreds of masks, ranging from people making 10 per day to some who make 100 and one member who Roffman said is able to sew 250 masks in one day.

Fabric that will become homemade face masks.Courtesy: Martina Williams

They obtained permission to place bins at locations around the county where group members can safely and conveniently drop off finished masks. So far, the group said they have distributed 400 masks and have another 700 ready for delivery.

One member, Martina Williams, owns a sewing store and was instrumental in developing a pattern. LoPresti said they worked closely with the two county hospitals to ensure the re-usable cotton face masks — which are considered an emergency measure — would be useful.

Sabrina Roffman of The Masked Warriors Project shows one of the homemade masks Martina Williams made for donation.Courtesy of Sabrina Roffman

“Everything had to go through the hospitals to have them checked and make sure that it’s what they wanted,” she told TODAY.

The Masked Warrior Project is using a pattern with two layers of cotton and, for an added barrier, a pocket where a HEPA vacuum bag can be inserted to serve as a makeshift, slightly better respiratory filter, Roffman said. They also choose tightly-woven cotton that can be sterilized and re-used with a new filter in the pocket.

Materials that will be used to sew homemade face masks.Courtesy: Martina Williams

Individuals and groups across the country have taken up needle and thread, looking for a way to help the scores of frontline health care professionals facing dwindling supplies of personal protective equipment, or PPE. Homemade face masks are considered supplements to PPE by the Centers for Disease Control and Protection.

Grassroots efforts are growing through online platforms like social media sites and crowd-funding campaigns. The mask-making groups are active communities that can thrive in a time of social distancing, sharing videos, tutorials, resources — and a sense of purpose.

Though all acknowledge that homemade cloth masks do not filter out COVID-19 and can’t offer health care workers as much protection as certified N95 masks, they can provide at least some physical protection.

The CDC guidelines for surgical masks — which offer a basic barrier to “respiratory droplets,” but cannot filter out viruses like the tighter-fitting, close-knit fibers of an N95 mask, which has a respirator — include instructions on how to build a "crisis capacity" of face masks. When there is a mask shortage in an emergency, the CDC allows for using scarfs or bandanas if there is nothing else. Home-sewn masks made according to hospital specs are an improvement on those.

Centers for Disease Control and Protection

The low supplies of PPE and related equipment for health care workers around the country has sparked some manufacturers and fashion brands to shift their production to mask-making. Some large organizations, including the United Nations, have donated their backup mask supplies to cities in need.

Amid the shortage, many hospitals are eager to receive the homemade masks and appreciate that people want to provide assistance any way they can — though the need for medical-grade face masks remains.

“It’s great that people want to help and to see the community response,” Tim Pfarr, a spokesperson for the Washington State Hospital Association told TODAY. “But, I think that there’s a concern that you want to make sure that masks are sterilized, they’re used appropriately and that it’s done in the correct way.”

Other groups are also working with hospitals on the designs, fabrics and handling to make them as useful as possible. And some homemade face masks are designed as covers on top of N95 masks, to prolong their life.

Sheri Yeisley, a professional decorator from Easton, Pennsylvania, said she put her advanced sewing skills to work when a fellow church member and director of a local hospital asked her on March 21 if she could help provide 10 to 15,000 additional masks. She used instructions they provided and began sewing as many as she could.

“I’m fast, it was under four minutes for me to make one” Yeisley told TODAY, but she realized the order was too big to sew alone.

Sheri Yeisley sews a homemade face mask.Courtesy of Sheri Yeisley

Yeisley enlisted her church sewing circle and the group reached out on social media for additional help.

“I put out the rally cry and people answered,” Yeisley said. “People have just been sewing like crazy.”

She received donations of fabric and elastic from local businesses to help, as well. She said the group of volunteers have completed about 1,000 masks, so far.

Along with existing supplies, the hospital has been able to offer all their health care workers “general use” masks.

A basket of completed homemade face masks in Sheri Yeisley's workspace.Courtesy of Sheri Yeisley

“As we began to prepare for COVID-19 in our community we put new processes and protocols in place to ensure we have enough supplies,” Dr. Kara Mascitti, medical director of health care epidemiology and infection prevention for St. Luke’s University in Easton, Pennsylvania, told TODAY.

“The homemade masks that Sheri and others are making are already being put to excellent use,” Mascitti said. “A great feature of the fabric mask is that it’s reusable.”

The hospital plans to provide replacements masks if they become too wet with natural respiration and to wash all the cloth masks daily.

As the emergency mask-making trend continues to grow, other groups like the Million Mask Challenge, Coronavirus Mask Makers and 100 Million Masks have sprung up online. Even craft stores such as JOANN have been offering up free kits and tutorials to make masks.

Though they can’t produce the millions of N95 masks the health care system needs, the volunteer army is trying to help defend the workers with whatever they can.

“I think the biggest thing is that we want people in the hospital, the doctors, the nurses, and the support staff to know that they’re not in this by themselves,” Roffman said. “This is not a me, this is a we.”