CORONAVIRUS: Local crafters sew masks for health care workers
As hospitals, nursing facilities and other places that care for the sick and immuno-compromised continue to see an uptick in patients due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, volunteers in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties have stepped up to help.
Crafters in every corner of the Panhandle are organizing among themselves to sew handmade face masks for local health care workers who need to wear them to safely do their jobs. The sewn face masks, which are not substitutes for hospital-grade masks, are being distributed to employees who work directly with the sick and the elderly, as well as people with medical conditions that make them more susceptible to diseases like COVID-19.
Jess Patton, who runs a local marketing company, set up a Facebook page on Saturday called Pensacola Mask Sewers to help organize what she thought would be just a few people with sewing machines who wanted to step up.
By Tuesday, the group had almost 1,000 members volunteering to do everything from sewing to fabric donation to transportation.
"What it’s turned into is hundreds and hundreds of people saying, 'What can I do?' " Patton said. "I have asthma, so I’m definitely a high-risk person. As I hear stories of people coming on the page, it’s really beautiful why they’re willing to make hundreds of masks or drive around and drop them off. Some have a son in the ER or their mother was a nurse, just really beautiful stories. I had no idea it would get this big.”
Patton said she's had requests from more than 20 agencies, health care facilities and individual nurses for a total of 3,800 masks — and counting.
Some are using the sewn masks over their hospital-grade N95 masks to help preserve the lives of the masks that are running in short supply. She's also had requests from local health care workers to repair surgical gowns they're having to re-use.
Pensacola Mask Sewers' first delivery of masks will happen Friday.
“I think my hope is that this is something inspiring that helps other people ask the same question, 'What can I do and how can we show up for each other in this time of uncertainty?' " she said.
In Navarre, a four-generation team comprised of great-grandmother Diana Austin, her daughter Nicki Vanderhovel, her granddaughter Paige Lorenz and her 3-year-old great-grandson Maxx Lorenz have spent the last three days working to make 355 face masks on a pair of old Singer sewing machines in their living room.
Vanderhovel is a bartender and server who was laid off last week when the county mandated all restaurants be take-out or delivery only. Paige Lorenz owns a cleaning company and is also out of work due to Navarre Beach shutting down and condo reservations canceling. Austin is retired, and Maxx's day care shut down.
Since they now all have a lot of free time, the three women have an "assembly line" set up in their living room where they cut fabric, sew masks, iron on the elastic and then pleat the masks. Maxx Lorenz sometimes helps his grandmother out by sitting in her lap and putting his foot on the petal that makes the sewing machine go.
“I understand the cry for medical supplies, and working in the hospital and being short-supplied when there’s no crisis,” said Vanderhovel, a former medical assistant. “So I took it upon myself, I had a whole tub of materials that weren’t being used, so I said, ‘OK, I’ll help,’ and then we all jumped in and started doing it.”
Vanderhovel acknowledged that the sewn masks aren't the same standard as the fitted N95 hospital masks that are in short supply nationally, but "they're better than nothing," she said.
The three women have gotten donations of fabric and sewing machines from friends in Navarre and have been in contact with several local nursing homes that have asked for the masks.
The one thing they desperately need is elastic for the masks so they can be worn over the ears, which can't be found in any local stores and is on backorder on Amazon until May 28 — thanks to people across the country also stepping up to sew masks for health care workers.
“You’ve got to keep busy somehow,” Austin said. “We do have our times when we sit in front of the TV and binge watch, but you can only do that so much.”
Gayle McClure, who also lives in Navarre, has also been sewing face masks out of her living room and distributing them to people who need them. She said in addition to the face masks, she's been asked to make fabric hats used in hospital operating rooms.
McClure has been collecting masks that other people have sewn and dropping them off at health care facilities and giving them to EMTs and first responders, in addition to sewing her own.
"My whole life, I've volunteered, and I just don't feel like my life is complete unless I'm helping someone," she said. "Normally I volunteer at the USO, but we're closed down. There's a need here, and (sewing) is something I know how to do, and I was like, 'Alright, I can do this.' "
How you can help, or ask for help
To join the Pensacola Mask Sewers group or ask for help, visit their Facebook page.
To donate supplies to Diana Austin and her family, or to request masks, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To request masks from Gayle McClure, email MedMasksFl@gmail.com.
Annie Blanks can be reached at email@example.com or 850-435-8632.