While the debate rages on about how many pieces of personal protective equipment local counties will get from the national stock pile — and who will get those precious supplies first — home seamstresses across the county are working to make masks for those in need.
A number of groups making masks can be found on social media networks. But in Grayson County, one such group started much closer to the community it serves, and Grayson County Sheriff Tom Watt said his office is happy to receive the masks.
Teresa Hall, whose husband works at the SO, started making masks with her family for her family. She has sisters involved in the health care field and her husband works at the jail.
Hall said they used a pattern they found online and just started sewing. Eventually, she said, Watt asked her if she would like to have some more hands to do the sewing and their small group began to grown.
Now, she said, they about ten people sewing. They want to get to the point that everyone who works at the GCSO can have at least two masks, one to wear and one to wash.
Her mother, Toya McEwen of Sherman, recently retired and she is really enjoying having the sewing to keep her busy, Hall said.
In a recent day, McEwen made 20 masks.
The masks are not the same as the high grade PPE that many people in the medical and correctional field are hoping to get, but they are better than nothing.
“We call them ‘better than a bandana mask’ and it’ll block a direct hit (from a cough or a sneeze) she said. The masks that they are making don’t have filters, but they have a space for one should the wearer have one to slide into it.
Hall said hopefully the professional grade PPE will come in people won’t need the home-made masks anymore. But till then, she said, they will keep right on sewing.
One of the groups that was spawned due to the need for surgical masks for medical personnel and first responders was the Texoma Mask Makers, who boasted more than 200 members as of Thursday afternoon on Facebook.
The group was started by Florist Sharie Stewart, who originally started making her masks in a similar group based out of the Metroplex. Currently, she is living in Denison and helps her mother, who has respiratory issues.
“I was making masks for that group because Dallas, Fort Worth area and Plano, were having a shortage at that time.” Stewart said. “When I left for Denison, and I didn’t think the shortage had gotten here yet.”
Less than a week later, Stewart said she heard about similar shortages in Texoma.
The Facebook group is a buzz of activity, with members posting tutorials on how to make the cotton masks, while others update with pictures of their completed projects. Other posts coordinate between members on where deliveries are being made made and who is requesting masks.
While many groups, businesses and individuals are requesting the masks, Stewart said she is trying to focus on getting first responders and medical staff supplied first and foremost. While many individuals can shelter in place and avoid public spaces, medical staff are still working to treat people, she said.
“Mainly I wanted seamstresses to coordinate together to make sure our first responders and health care professionals are the front line people getting masks,” she said.
In total, the group has donated more than 400 masks to Wilson N. Jones Regional Medical Center. Meanwhile, Texoma Medical Center has request an additional 175 between multiple departments.
At her speed, Stewart said she is able to make between 30 and 40 masks a day, but notes that some seamstresses are faster than she is.
The masks are made from 100 percent cotton and are designed to allow a filter to be placed inside the mask. Initially, the masks were made with elastic strings to help attack them to the face, but Stewart said an elastic shortage has since cut off her supply. Now, she uses strings to help attack the mask, and pipe cleaner to adjust the fit and seal around the nose.
Without the filter, the masks are not very effective at filtering viruses and other potential microbes that could cause illness.
“You have to have something waterproof or close to the N95 filter system as possible,” she said.
One advantage of her masks is that they are able to be laundered and reused multiple times. Prior to the masks, Stewart said some medical personnel were using the same paper masks for as many as three to four shifts at a time.
Stewart said the response from both the public and medical personnel has been positive. While doctors are thankful, the general public has been reaching out to find out how they can help, she said.
“The health care professionals have been extremely grateful. They are all thanking us and supporting us,” she said. “The general public wants to help. If they can’t sew, they are wanting to donate.”
Initially, TMC was not accepting the homemade masks, but amended guidance from the CDC led the hospital to change its policy late last week. In total, TMC has receive more than 300 hand-sewn masks, while many others are still in production.
“There are standards for masks, including the N95 typically used in health care facilities,” said Donna Glenn, director of infection prevention at TMC. “The standards are different depending on the type of mask and are regulated federal agencies. The handmade masks of course do not go through those regulatory agencies. The cloth does provide some filtering of large droplets that may contain germs.”
Another mask maker who has been donating her crafts is Janet LaFoy. In the weeks since the outbreak started, LaFoy said she has been able to make about 1,500 masks for friends, community members and first responders.
Despite this, she initially didn’t plan to make the masks. One of her daughter’s friends mentioned that she needed a mask, which led LaFoy to start sewing.
“The real truth of how I got into it was I told God I wasn’t going to do it,” she said. “Then the next thing I know I am doing it.”
The design for the masks were LaFoy’s own and based on her seven years working as a volunteer paramedic in Virgina Beach. Among the groups that have received her masks is Virginia Beach, who requested about 120 for first responders.
Since word got out of her crafts, LaFoy said she has started getting calls and messages for masks. By noon Friday she had received more than 85 calls and texts that day alone inquiring about her craft.
At her peak, LaFoy said she has made 132 masks in a day.
“However, we are talking about 10 to 12 hour days or more,” she said.
Despite her work, LaFoy bucked at the label of hero for what she has done. Instead, she reserved that for the people working on the front line of this epidemic.
“I am no hero — like I would tell everyone else, if they knew how to do it, they would be doing that as well,” she said. “We are all in this together.”