The owners of a Charlotte-based custom design boutique are using their sewing skills to make masks for medical providers facing shortages during the outbreak of COVID-19.
Cheryl Anne and Kathy Laughlin of Dance Style Design specialize in dance and ice-skating costumes, but they are now trying their hand at sewing masks similar to the N95 respirators hospital workers wear to protect themselves from patients with respiratory viruses.
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“We knew from the very beginning that there was going to be a need, but then we started seeing doctors and physicians posting on Facebook that there was a dire need. We thought this was something we could do,” Anne said.
Over the last few weeks, the coronavirus has put a strain on the supply of face masks and other personal protective equipment used by first-responders and medical professionals working in hospitals around the world. Some of the strain stems from a spike in demand caused by consumers buying N95 masks from retailers in the hopes of protecting themselves from the virus.
While the coronavirus is believed to be spread through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend people who are well wearing a face mask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including coronavirus. People who are sick should only wear a face mask when they are around other people or before entering a healthcare provider’s office.
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams has also urged the public to save masks for medical personnel.
“Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!” Adams tweeted Feb. 29.
To help ease the demand, Anne and Laughlin are aiming to make two different kinds of masks that can be used by both medical and non-medical personnel, such as HVAC and construction workers.
“If we make masks for other people so the other masks can go to medical professionals, that’s big. That’s huge,” Anne said. “I cannot consciously sit at my sewing machine every day making beautiful gowns, which is what we do, knowing that there are people in the medical profession who can’t get masks and are sewing them on their lunch breaks at the hospital.”
One type of mask will be made out of cotton and include a sewn-in pocket for an N95-grade filter. The other will be an N95 respirator, which Anne said will be prioritized for critical medical personnel.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, an N95 respirator fits to the face and blocks at least 95% of very small particles in the air transmitted by coughs, sneezes or certain medical procedures. That’s different than a face mask, which may be effective in blocking splashes and large-particle droplets, but does not block very small particles. Face masks also do not provide complete protection from germs and other contaminants because of its loose fit.
Anne said N95 respirators can be made using fabric from MERV-13 air filters. She has already received some of this fabric through a partnership with Air 72 HVAC + Solar and its Mt. Holly-based filter supplier, FilterTime.
Christina Vogel is the marketing manager for Air 72, a residential heating and cooling company owned by her husband, John, that services Mecklenburg and Union counties. Vogel is also the daughter of Anne’s business partner, Kathy Laughlin.
In addition to donating some of Air 72’s unused N95 masks, Vogel also contacted FilterTime to order MERV-13 filter fabric to donate to her mother’s cause.
“We thought that was a good way for our two family businesses to pair up and do something to help amidst all the chaos,” Vogel said.
According to FilterTime’s website, filters with a higher MERV rating block more allergens and particles. MERV-13 is the highest-grade air filter the company carries. It protects from virus carriers, making it useful in stopping the spread of COVID-19.
In addition to time and labor, Anne and Laughlin have pledged to donate some of their own thread, elastic and cloth to make the masks. They’re asking for monetary donations to help purchase more cloth from a wholesaler, as well as more filter fabric from FilterTime. They’re also asking for people who can sew since each mask can take 10 to 30 minutes to make. Anyone interested in helping should email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
“We’re creating a community and it’s something we can do to help in our small little way,” Anne said. “There’s nothing more isolating and lonely than feeling helpless.”
Anne said the goal is to donate the masks to county health departments who will then hand them out to people or clinics they know are in need. The question is, are these agencies ready to receive donations?
Novant Health announced on March 24 that it has enough personal protection equipment but will accept donations of critical medical supplies like masks, eye shields and disinfectants to ensure team members can continue to safely provide care to their patients. Any vendor or supplier interested in donating supplies should email donatesupplies@NovantHealth.org, where they will be contacted about next steps.
“Our supply chain team has worked diligently to ensure all team members have access to the supplies they need to provide remarkable care for our patients. We acknowledge there is a growing need for these critical supplies, and we plan to meet that need by increasing our inventory through donations from outside organizations,” said Mark Welch, senior vice president of supply chain at Novant Health.
Megan Rivers, a public relations manager at Novant Health, said any donated or handmade supplies would have to meet the hospital’s medical standards.
“Those standards will be discussed individually with those who have the supplies,” Rivers said.
Chief Robert Graham, deputy director of emergency management in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Management Office, said in a virtual press conference March 24 that the county is still evaluating its supplies and personal protective equipment for medical professionals and first-responders. He said officials have not yet decided on the best way to handle and accept supplies, such as masks, that are donated from or made by community groups and businesses.
“Stay tuned,” Graham said.
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