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Hand-Sewn Masks A 'Last Resort' To Address Supply Shortage

As President Trump has resisted using the full range of his executive powers to address the shortage in medical supplies like masks, regular citizens across the country are offering to hand-sew them at home and donate them to hospitals and other institutions. 

Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton has drop-in hours for mask donations, and even sent out links to do-it-yourself instructions on YouTube.

Caitlin Carvalho of Northampton is a part-time clothing maker. She has a large stock of T-shirt material that she's converted into 100 fabric masks so far.

Carvalho videotaped a tutorial on how she makes the masks, which include an opening to put in a filter. But she can't promise they meet medical standards.

"People are like, 'Oh, it's gonna be a false sense of protection, a false sense of security.' And I don't want that to be the case," she said. "But I also feel like, literally... they're sending doctors to the ER and saying, 'Wear a bandana on your face.'"

The Centers for Disease Control lists handmade masks, as well as bandanas, as a last-resort during the COVID-19 crisis.

While Cooley Dickinson is accepting both medical-grade and home-made masks, the hospital said it's not yet sure how or when the home-sewn ones will be used.

Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield said it has enough masks on hand and is not accepting handmade ones until getting guidance from public health officials.

And at Baystate Health in Springfield, CEO Mark Keroack said he encourages "anyone who is able to donate appropriate materials to do so to your local hospital."

But at Baystate, that does not currently include hand-sewn masks, just medical-grade ones.

Keroack said the hospital is working with local companies to make more high-quality masks and other supplies.

"There's been a tremendous amount of ingenuity and can do attitude among the manufacturing community," he said. "And we're very happy to see that because some of these supplies are in short supply and everyone across the nation is competing for them."

But he said it's hard to know how long supply will keep up with demand. So volunteers continue to sew ad-hoc masks — not just for hospitals, but for homeless shelters, nursing homes and other settings where people could use more personal protection. 

Karen is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998. Her features and documentaries have won a number of national awards, including the National Edward R. Murrow Award, Public Radio News Directors, Inc. (PRNDI) Award, Third Coast Audio Festival Award, and the Daniel Schorr Journalism Prize.
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