‘Form an army’: Central PA seamstresses aid shortage of face masks by sewing their own

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People around the world are banding together to sew face masks for hospitals running short of personal protective equipment as the coronavirus pandemic intensifies. Health care workers say the do-it-yourself face masks are better than nothing. (March 23) AP Domestic

Jo Ellen Litz first put out the call for homemade face masks in her community on March 20.

As a Lebanon County Commissioner, she became aware of the limited supply of N95 masks, “so I asked for women to form an army, if you will, behind the scenes and start making masks,” Litz said.

The next day, Litz made her first mask based on instructions she found from Deaconess Health System of Indiana. Now, Litz has an operation of 18 seamstresses, three fabric cutters and about three others providing material donations. 

“They’re just doing a stellar job. I call them heroes  … working behind the scenes with little or no credit to make this happen,” Litz said.

As of April 1, the group produced more than 900 masks and have donated many of them to three fire companies, two nursing homes and a veterans home.

While the Centers for Disease Control only recommends that the public and healthcare professionals use homemade masks as a last resort, their re-evaluation of data might change those recommendations

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The biggest challenge has been finding the most effective way of producing these masks to actually help prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

How to make the most effective mask

Sheri Linehan, of Green Township in Franklin County, said when she started making masks, she found “a lot of conflicting information out there about the best type to make, the best materials to use.”

She first heard about a possible need for masks on social media and through the American Sewing Guild. She reached out to family in the medical field to see if they could use masks, and they said yes.

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Through some research, Linehan made prototypes, sent them to those family members and used their feedback to streamline her process.

Linehan said she has been making two kinds of masks: a fitted style that rounds to the face, doesn’t gap and has a wire near the bridge of the nose and a pleated style that is used more as a reusable cover for other masks.

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For Litz, of West Lebanon Township, she said she is trusting the judgement of Deaconess Health System and depending on the information released by these medical professionals in Indiana.

Per their recommendations, Litz is using a double layered technique with cotton fabric on the front and cotton flannel on the back. Their adult design consists of 9 inch by 6 inch pieces of fabric that are pleated to hug the face.

To help others in her community with the instructions, Litz made a YouTube video.

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Litz also sterilizes all the masks that she donates by spraying them with hydrogen peroxide and leaving them out to dry.

“When they go to places like nursing homes or First Aid and Safety Patrol, they know procedure, they’ll wash everything again with soap and water but at least when they’re handed to them” the masks are already sterilized, Litz said.

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Linehan said she has not been sterilizing her masks because most have been mailed and therefore handled by others. She asks that everyone washes them in hot water before using them.

Linehan made about 50 masks within 23 hours. Most masks are going to family in the medical field, but she also made some for a nurse at UPMC Carlisle who reached out.

CDC: Homemade masks are a last resort

Facemasks should be warn by those who are sick or those caring for those that are sick, according to the CDC. When masks are in short supply, they should be saved for caregivers.

The CDC recommends that homemade masks only be used as a last resort for the care of patients with COVID-19.

When N95 respirators, the equivalent or higher level of protection respirators and surgical masks are not available, the CDC says that healthcare providers may need to use non-approved or homemade masks.

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They advise caution when considering this option. The masks should be used in combination with a face shield that covers the entire front (below the chin) and sides of the face.

CDC Director Robert Redfield told National Public Radio on Monday that they are reconsidering the data around mask use by the general public.

Redfield said in the interview that 25 percent of those infected with the virus remain asymptomatic. As a response to this, the CDC will look into whether having these individuals wear masks will help with prevention.

‘There are a lot of people doing this’

Those making masks range from home sewers looking to fill time to professional seamstresses who have had to close their business and many others.

“There are a lot of people doing this, and a lot of us are just doing our best to try to help out where we can with whatever skills we have keeping people safe,” Linehan said.

Litz has been a home sewer since high school. As a county commissioner, she finds time in her work-from-home schedule to make and deliver the masks.

“We do a lot of sewing, I haven’t done it in recent years because of my job I’ve been so busy, but this is a perfect time to put those skills to use,” Litz said. “God blessed me in being able to do that, so I do it.”

Those helping Litz with her operation include Bonnie Beers, Gail J. Dundore Daub, Carol Hollinger, Heidi Leibicher, Sonya Myer, Donna Pozorski, Lisa and Kalli Putt, Penny Samuelson, Missy Dechert Swoyer, Judith Schweingruber, Debra Trayer, Deb Weaver, Janet Weller, Natalie White, Sharon and Vera Zook, Jo-Ann Blatt, Diana Brandt, Cindy Myers, Dana and Beth Kapp and Candy Falger.

Litz can be reached by email at joellenlitz15@comcast.net or her personal Facebook page

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Linehan is working out of her small business called The Sewing Cats. She said she doesn’t think making these masks will become the new norm.

“So many companies are ramping up production of their masks and stuff that I imagine within a couple of weeks we’ll probably have enough of a supply that this little stopgap measure hopefully won’t be needed anymore,” Linehan said.

Linehan can be reached on the Sewing Cat’s Facebook page.

Others throughout central Pennsylvania that are making masks for their community:

  • Gusa by Victoria Kageni in York County: Check out her masks at VictoriaKageni.com and her Facebook page
  • Shippensburg Factory Outlet in Cumberland County: Check out their Facebook page for more information.
  • Sewing for Society in York and Adams Counties: Check out their Facebook page to help with donations.

To be added to this list, please email msveloso@eveningsun.com with the organization’s name and links.

Resources for making masks:

Mariana Veloso is the Quality of Life reporter for the USA Today Network – Pennsylvania. Veloso focuses primarily on the opioid epidemic in southcentral PA, along with coverage of everyday issues in the Hanover area. If you have a story idea, you can email her at msveloso@eveningsun.com. Follow her on Twitter @MariVeloso9 to stay up to date with her latest articles.

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