DIYers and fashion designers in Philly region sew face masks for health care workers

Pedestrians in protective face mask walk past a closed business in Philadelphia, Friday, March 20, 2020. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Pedestrians in protective face mask walk past a closed business in Philadelphia, Friday, March 20, 2020. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

As a third-year medical student in a rotation at Cooper University Hospital, Nicole Jochym wasn’t giving much thought to the surgical face masks she always wore in operating rooms. Then hospital administration asked staff to be mindful of how many of the masks they used.

It was only the second week of March, and a week after officials identified the first coronavirus case in South Jersey — the statewide number of cases was in the single digits — but it signaled growing fears of equipment shortages.

“We got our first kind of guidance of, ‘Guys, please tell … the clinicians that have to enter the operating room, please don’t use multiple masks,’” she remembered, adding that rules to toss sneezed-in masks still applied. “’Try to just use one a day. It’s now acceptable to kind of use one and, when you’re not using it, have it hanging around your neck.’”

Jochym, like tens of thousands of medical students, has since been sent home as hospitals try to conserve precious personal protective equipment. But the knowledge that fellow medical workers need protection has kept her busy.

Last Thursday, Jochym joined forces with a growing legion of DIYers and hand-sewers in the Philadelphia region to address the mask shortage, despite there being little guidance from the federal or state governments.

Her private Facebook group “Sew Face Masks Philadelphia #AbolishCOVID” has more than 1,500 members.

The crafters are on a mission to make as many handmade masks as possible until the global supply chain meets the growing needs of the region.

They know these masks are no substitute for surgical masks or N95 masks — which block up to 95% of airborne particulate matter — but they say it’s a reminder to avoid touching your face and an added layer of protection.

It’s not the first effort in the country to activate the sewing community. Providence Health and Services, one of the largest providers in Washington state, enlisted help from cosplayers and gave them enough materials to make 100 masks each.

That effort, called the Million Mask Challenge, reached people like Camille Dominguez, a designer in Philadelphia.

“I have this time on my hands, and I could easily use this time to Netflix and chill, but I thought I have to keep busy,’” said Dominguez. “It was the Million Mask Challenge I was inspired by, and I realized I have time, I can do this.”

She went to Fleishman Fabrics & Supplies for medical-grade fabric the business bought after Hahnemann University Hospital closed.

Dominguez said people who have to go into work at grocery stores and other essential jobs have requested donations because they can’t find masks at stores.

Nancy Volpe Beringer, a Philadelphia designer featured in the most recent season of Project Runway, also went to Fleishman. She plans to devote almost all her time at home to making masks.

“I want to be a relevant designer and I always define that as being able to use my fashion to do good. This is a direct way that I can use my skills, and the resources that I have, to do some good,” she said.

Her fellow Project Runway competitors have been chatting since the weekend, going over best designs in an effort to come up with a prototype.

The idea went viral this weekend after Project Runway designer Christian Siriano tweeted New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo with an offer to put his sewing team to work. Cuomo has since accepted the offer.

Still, in Philly, it’s not enough to have an army of volunteers.

“This was something more difficult than we ever could have imagined,” Jochym said.

People wanted to know how they should shape the mask and what materials they should use.

“We didn’t want to officially recommend anything until we had a chance to look at everything, passed it through our channels — which include medical professionals, researchers, hospital workers and community members — and it was really difficult,” said Jochym.

Members of the group said they believe they have landed on suitable mask shapes, materials, and instructions for usage. Rules include washing masks before use in hot water, drying them on heat, switching them out after a sneeze or a fit of coughing, and changing them after four hours of use.

The group has at least 150 masks ready for delivery, according to Jochym, but they’re holding off with hopes they’ll get some guidance.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says medical professionals treating COVID-19 patients can use hand-sewn, homemade face masks “as a last resort.”

Though the warning hasn’t stopped local health care workers from making requests, it has left crafters looking for guidance from the New Jersey and Pennsylvania health departments.

“We cannot get in contact with them,” said Jochym. “We can’t get any response.”

Nate Wardle, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said the state has a store of N95 masks and other protective gear for now. Wardle said that reserve is finite however, so in addition to working with the federal government, the state was working with the mining industry and other companies to ensure the supply of gear.

The department is not taking hand-sewn mask donations, though individual health systems like Temple University Health have said they will.

“A handmade cloth mask or bandana, while a fantastic gesture to support our frontline responders and health care workers, likely will not provide the needed level of protection against COVID-19,” added Wardle.

A New Jersey health department spokesperson did not say whether the state would accept donations of these masks.

A Philadelphia task force of designers and manufacturers hopes to give the crafters the guidance they want. 

CoverAid PHL, started by local manufacturers and Elissa Bloom, executive director of the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator, will come up with a design packet people like Jochym could follow as early as next week.

The group is expected to tap into the DIY community and has been in talks with the city’s commerce and health departments to determine potential areas of collaboration.

“While we appreciate their effort, it’s also important that the equipment that is sourced for these workers (masks, etc.) be vetted and approved for medical use to ensure that those front-line workers are protected as best as possible,” said Lauren Cox, a city spokesperson. 

Bloom has been tasked with making a list of DIYers and crafters in the area that could help and other members are looking at finding a supply chain that could help the city replicate efforts like the ones in Washington. 

“Down the road, we’re looking to actually have the fabric cut and then to give that to DIYers to cut and sew,” said Bloom of the effort, though more details need to be hammered out by the task force. 

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that CoverAid PHL is an initiative started by designers and manufacturers.

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