If you can sew, you can make face masks for coronavirus fight

Staff photo by Tim Barber/ Melanie Coakley holds a colorful cotton mask she made Saturday morning at her Ready Set Sew shop in East Ridge.
Staff photo by Tim Barber/ Melanie Coakley holds a colorful cotton mask she made Saturday morning at her Ready Set Sew shop in East Ridge.

In the fight against the coronavirus, a sewing machine probably wouldn't make the short list of life-saving instruments.

But as supplies of personal protective equipment dwindle in hospitals at the epicenters of the U.S. outbreak, medical professionals are sounding the alarm about a lack of surgical caps and face masks to protect their patients and themselves in contaminated environments.

Melanie Coakley, owner of Ready Set Sew in East Ridge, is answering the call.

On Saturday, she had begun the first steps in an assembly line that she said would eventually produce stacks of masks for local doctors and nurses to use when the need arises in the Chattanooga area.

"Everybody's stressed," she said. "This is something I can do to keep my mind off things and actually do something productive."

Coakley said she was asked to start producing the masks by a couple of nurses who work in local hospitals. While Hamilton County's numbers remain low - as of March 20, there were eight patients confirmed to have COVID-19, and no reported deaths - there are nearly 245,000 cases worldwide and the death toll has passed 10,000.

In some U.S. cities, the lack of personal protective equipment, or PPE, has become so grave that medical personnel have resorted to using bandanas and scarves as a last line of defense when face masks are not available. To stave off shortages, some health-care workers have reported using the same gowns and masks repeatedly, though such equipment is intended for single encounters with patients.

Such shortages prompted Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Seattle to distribute kits of medical-grade material to anyone who could sew and was willing to make face masks at home. After their efforts were featured by national media, the idea spread to other cities seeing dramatic increases in the patient load or, like Chattanooga, trying to get ahead of a looming problem.

Kaiser Health News has reported that hospitals are getting fewer masks than requested from their suppliers - only 44% of the N95 masks and 82% of the surgical masks they've ordered - according to a survey released March 2 by Premier, a group-purchasing organization that procures supplies for 4,000 U.S. hospitals and health systems.

Chattanooga Fire Department Chief Phillip Hyman said firefighters are issued N95 face masks, medical gloves and eye protection as part of their standard gear. But efforts to obtain more supplies from their vendors have been stymied by wait lists, "just like everyone else."

Chattanooga police Chief David Roddy said his officers have some protective gear on hand, but not enough to outfit the whole department.

"We are in the same situation that you see across the country," he previously told the Times Free Press. "When it comes to first responders, we all develop the same need simultaneously, so we are all working to obtain those critical items."

For her homemade masks, Coakley is using batik fabric, which has a tighter weave than regular cotton fabric and would filter more particulates. A series of accordion folds leaves room for the fabric mask to expand, enough even to wear a hospital-issued mask underneath, or line with a cut-to-fit coffee filter or a piece of HEPA filter from a vacuum cleaner bag, as some DIY websites suggest.

The fabric mask would extend the life of the hospital masks by offering another layer of protection from particulates and spatters. Unlike medical-grade masks, these can be washed, disinfected and reused.

For efficiency's sake, Coakley wanted to share her expertise with her sewing circle and posted a request for their help to the store's Facebook page.

"I immediately got back about 20 responses," she said.

Soon, Coakley had her project table filled with bolts of colorful fabric to begin making a prototype. Because she had never made face masks before, she cruised YouTube for videos, but decided she had more expertise than the featured instructors. Her daughter, a professional videographer, planned to film her mother's instructions to post on Ready Set Sew's Facebook page and YouTube channel so that others may join the effort.

"It has to be easy, and it has to be fast," Coakley said. "Once you sew your first one, you can do these in 10 to 12 minutes."

For more information

Melanie Coakley's face mask project is unofficial, but she can provide information to anyone who wishes to help. She can be reached at the store, Ready Set Sew, at 423-629-6411.

Coakley's instructions show how to make masks for two adults and one child from the same cut of fabric. Once the three pieces are separated, they are stitched on the sides and accordion-pleated. Smaller strips sewn on each side secure the elastic that loops behind the ears.

She made her prototypes with twist-tie wire, tripled and sewn in at the top to help secure the mask to the bridge of the nose. She later procured several boxes of prong fasteners, the kind used to bind papers, to use in place of the twist-tie wire. If she runs out of elastic for the ear loops, she has a supply of large rubber bands to use.

She was especially proud of her efforts to use common products that aren't likely to be swept from shelves by stockpilers. Finding creative solutions, she said, "is what Americans do."

Ultimately, she added, "this whole thing is going to define who we are as Americans."

Contact Lisa Denton at ldenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6281.

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