Centra emergency department Dr. David Kumar finds himself daily wishing he had a big pile of N95 masks to share with coworkers.
“Certain masks filter better, and those are hard to find,” Kumar said Wednesday.
As the coronavirus rages, doctors, nurses, caregivers and emergency personnel are finding it hard to get their hands on the N95 masks, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said “protect the wearer from airborne particles and from liquid contaminating the face,” including the coronavirus. The FDA has recommended healthcare workers limit the need to use N95 masks and suggests if there is a shortage to re-use the masks only in low-risk situations.
Dr. Kumar’s wife, Dayna Kumar, is a first-year member of the Junior League of Lynchburg. Hearing about the difficulty medical professionals are having in finding proper masks only made her concerns about the pandemic that much more pronounced.
“Everybody was asking how everyone was doing, and I am definitely a person who doesn’t ask for help and I never let people know my vulnerability, but I just needed to, and I knew this was a group of women who would hold me up. So I had sent them a text saying I’m not doing okay, these are the reasons why, and my husband’s gonna be working in the tent and he doesn’t have the proper gear. And as soon as I sent the text, I swear within, like, seconds Tracey [Langseth] messaged me, and then from there all these women came together and were like, ‘Let’s just get this initiative started.’”
League member Tracey Langseth and other members of the Junior League made some calls, did some research, and started a “mask-her-aid” task force, which as of Wednesday had made and delivered almost 200 masks for medical professionals in Lynchburg to put over their N95 masks, extending the life of the hard-to-find masks.
As word spread, Langseth said they’ve gotten calls from nursing homes, assisted living facilities and pediatricians looking for donated masks. They’ve also learned they aren’t alone in the community in their efforts.
“We have found in the process of this some people who were really trying to dive in and do the same thing, and so the Patches and Pieces Quilt Club and the Seven Hills Quilt Guild, they were already really diving in to try to make these masks and we just tried to act as a facilitator to make sure we were getting them to the right places and it was nice to talk with them because in the process ... they have tried to really perfect different patterns that are a little more comfortable, a little bit more effective.”
The League has been promoting the use of a certain pattern in a link on its website. Typically, the masks are made with two pieces of cotton fabric with a thin batting in between, all tied together with ear straps made of elastic. But on Thursday, Langseth learned the group would receive a donation of water filters early this week from Water Management Solutions, a Pamplin-based water filtration and pumping company, that could be used in place of batting.
“We will be creating 2 types of masks now — 1 with [a] pocket for [a] filter and the basic mask as well,” Langseth said in a text message.
Water Management Solutions’ CEO Wendy Eldridge-Panuska said the protection offered by the water filters is closer to the N95 than a plain cloth mask.
“At this point, something is better than nothing,” Eldridge-Panuska said. “I’ve seen other people using vacuum bags” in masks.
Her company also has offered the services of company trucks and delivery drivers for the effort.
“One of the great things that comes out of all of this is you have that sense of camaraderie, and the people that are in that first-year class with you, you have a really unique relationship with them, and it’s been a pretty hard year,” Junior League President Kara Martin said. “Our two biggest events are in the springtime, so with all of this going on, we’ve had to cancel our biggest fundraiser, All Aboard, and we had to cancel our biggest community even, which is Day in the Park, and so that can be pretty discouraging to see all of that evaporate so quickly, but the one really wonderful thing that’s come out of this is to see how quickly women can pivot in this organization and just how quickly things can be mobilized and how everyone bands together and really tries to fill a need in the community as needs change.”
Community involvement is key in the enterprise, and donations and volunteers are always welcome. Volunteers are even making kits with materials for others to work with. Other volunteers are picking up and dropping off kits and finished products. More information can be found on the group’s website and facebook page.
Right now, the masks are being made just for Lynchburg facilities, but as production allows, the masks may find their way into the surrounding counties.
“We’ve had emails from moms who have said ‘I’ve got teenagers at home and we want to get in on this project,’” so I think it’s a multi-generational, community wide project that certainly if we, as we spread the word, people have the awareness that this project is available to donate or jump in by sewing, sure may have the ability to expand beyond Lynchburg,” Langseth said.
Centra spokeswoman Diane Ludwig in a news release March 23 said the company was “humbled” by the community’s efforts to supply the healthcare system with masks.
“Homemade cloth masks will be given to patients and visitors upon entry in low-risk areas. They may also be used for covering coughs and preventing someone from touching their face,” Ludwig said in the statement. “Homemade masks are not considered personal protective equipment ... for healthcare providers, since their capability to protect individuals from pathogens, such as COVID-19, is unknown.”
According to the statement, Centra has partnered with Gleaning for the World to process and launder donations and is setting up locations where donors can drop off masks, including at the Centra Dawson Inn in Lynchburg.
On Wednesday, members of the Junior League met with staff from Lynchburg General Hospital’s emergency department to present them with a fresh supply of the handmade masks.
Asked how the facility was supplied during the pandemic, emergency services managing director Robbie Price was upbeat.
“I think currently Centra has the supplies, but I think the concern is that the shortage is nationwide, so I think the concern is that if we don’t conserve our resources now, as we get more and more influx of patients we could run critically low. Centra has a team of folks actively looking at supplies and making sure we’re ordering and staying ahead of the curve.”
“What’s been most impressive about the homemade masks is that really it seems to be good for our community and good for our staff,” Price said.
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