The first mask Rivers Ater made came in a cheery floral print, navy and turquoise and lime.
Within days, she had sewn nearly a hundred. Ater photographed them stacked atop one another, their wide colorful straps streaming down like ribbon awards. She posted the image to “Masks for the Miss Lou,” a Facebook group she helped start that is now full of crafters in the community that spans the towns of Natchez, Ferriday, La., and Vidalia, La. The masks were for local health care workers short on supplies in the midst of the fight against the global COVID-19 outbreak.
Ater, who has an autoimmune disease, said making the masks has become something to do for the self-described “shut-in” while she stays at home. Over the course of a weekend, her personal project evolved into a social media group with nearly 1,400 members. “Masks for the Miss Lou” now sees a flurry of daily activity, between people posting sewing tips and individual health care providers making requests for masks in the comments.
A local antique shop donated bolts of fabric; a craft store heavily discounted ribbons; others gave thread. Bethani Douglas, one of the coordinators, said 30 or so volunteers in the area are now sewing masks for medical providers in the region and across Mississippi.
“We’re just making as many as we can for as long as we can, until there’s not a need,” Douglas said.
Amid a dire shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE, for health providers on the frontlines of caring for COVID-19 patients, Mississippi residents are trying to fill in the gaps at home, donating both purchased and handmade masks.
“COVID-19 has placed a strain on supply inventories nationwide,” said Timothy Moore, president/CEO of the Mississippi Hospital Association in a statement, adding that the association is working through regional health care coalitions, government officials, the national strategic stockpile and vendors to get protective equipment.
Still, one expert notes that such a need for supplies calls for action on a governmental scale.
“Of course it’s marvelous that individual people, not to mention businesses, want to help in this crisis. It’s lovely that people want to protect their neighbors,” said Maryn McKenna, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Human Health at Emory University. “But it’s unrealistic to hope that they can backstop what federal pandemic planning failed to do.”
McKenna pointed out that hospitals require tens of thousands of masks per day, as the masks are discarded for being potentially infectious after each patient encounter. Making that many masks is an industrial-scale task, McKenna said: “Private businesses and individual citizens can’t afford to buy materials in those volumes, if they could even find them. That kind of procurement and planning requires government muscle.”
The state Department of Health and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency began distributing personal protective equipment to counties over the weekend.
“MEMA is currently working to keep our stockpile filled and just this week will make at least three deliveries to county (emergency management agency), health care facilities and long-term care facilities,” said MEMA executive director Greg Michel about the state’s inventory and distribution of supplies for COVID-19 response. Michel said MEMA is providing thousands of PPE, including gowns, gloves and masks, from state and national stockpiles, as well as those procured commercially.
MEMA had delivered more than 210,000 surgical masks more than 236,000 N95 masks across the state, Gov. Tate Reeves said at a press conference Tuesday. Reeves assured health care providers that the state was working to obtain masks, but encouraged hospitals to secure supplies as well.
The University of Mississippi Medical Center is still soliciting donations for N95 masks, disposable masks, nitrile gloves and protective gowns, as well as safety goggles and smartphones or tablets.
Other community efforts have multiplied across the state. In Greenwood, a local community center is also collecting handmade masks for local hospitals. In Tupelo, a denim factory is shifting part of its production to making masks. And the state Association of Builders and Contractors is now soliciting N95 masks, typically used to keep dust and other particles out of the lungs of construction workers, to donate to the state medical association, per a spokeswoman, Christee Holbrook.
While the disposable N95 masks are considered the gold standard, the CDC has recommended the use of homemade masks, such as scarves or bandanas, for the care of COVID-19 patients “as a last resort.” Handmade masks do not meet N95 standards to prevent COVID-19 transmission, experts say.
Inside the Facebook group, participants swapped suggestions. Some shared videos made by other hospitals, as well as a how-to video made by a surgeon at UMMC herself. Others suggested taking apart coffee filters or air conditioning unit filters to line the masks. One member suggested making use of pipe cleaners. Douglas said the group’s administrators are recommending volunteers use two-ply tightly woven cotton at minimum.
“Thanks to an overwhelming show of community support, we have been gifted a huge supply of homemade surgical masks,” UMMC stated Monday on Facebook. “Because of limitations on the use of these masks in a patient care setting, we are no longer requesting home-sewn masks, but will accept those that are currently completed/in-progress.”
The masks are intended to be washable and reusable, Ater, the Miss Lou sewing group’s founder, said. Some workers have told her they are using them to cover medical-grade masks so as to change the mask underneath less often, she added.
According to Ater, requests for masks are not just coming from health care workers like emergency department doctors, but also local fire departments and grocery store workers, who have asked for the masks as reminders not to touch their faces. As of Monday, Douglas said she had also seen an influx of requests for masks in correctional facilities (the region has several jails and immigration detention facilities).
“There are so many people—their jobs are now the MVP jobs,” Ater said. “They’ve become so much more special to us than we realized they were.”