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Masking the shortage: Flagstaff residents sew masks for coronavirus pandemic
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Masking the shortage: Flagstaff residents sew masks for coronavirus pandemic

From the A collection of the Daily Sun's coronavirus coverage series

What the region lacks in supplies to stop the spread of the coronavirus can be gained in skill, according to a group of Flagstaff sewers who have begun making masks to donate to health care workers, nonprofits like shelters and food banks, fire departments, assisted living facilities and more.

“It’s been really beautiful,” said Lindsey Watson, executive director of Threaded Together, a local nonprofit that uses textile arts programs for community enrichment and employment pathways. “I think in these uncertain dark times, to be able to feel like maybe you can help your fellow neighbor is providing a big light for a lot of people. We are trying to get as many people involved as we can.”

Threaded Together is one of several local groups helping to coordinate, create, collect and distribute these masks safely and without charge to those who need them.

There is only one disclaimer for recipients: the masks are not replacements for Surgical N95 Respirators or other masks approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but are merely a stopgap.

“This is definitely a last-resort situation,” Watson said. “The scary thing is we’re dealing with this very unknown, very uncertain medical situation and now we’re asking our frontline health care providers to not only step into that situation but to step into it without the equipment they need.”

She referenced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines regarding homemade masks, which state that health care professionals should only use homemade masks including bandanas and scarfs as a last resort and ideally with the use of a face shield.

And though health care workers are certainly in need of masks, Watson explained these handmade creations might be better suited for other service organizations.

“Our frontline health care providers are complete heroes, but I also want to try as hard as we can to make sure the people out on our streets providing essential services are getting help as well,” Watson said.

Threaded Together’s four-person team created more than 200 masks in just two days and donated them to both the Salvation Army and Flagstaff Shelter Services. Its masks are created using recycled surgical wrapping donated by Flagstaff Medical Center that was originally allocated for tote bags for patients and staff.

Other groups are relying on trusty 100% cotton for their masks. The tighter the weave, the better, said Wendy Wetzel, a retired nurse practitioner who has been creating masks mostly using scraps of material left over from her work with Days for Girls, an international organization that creates reusable feminine hygiene kits for women in developing countries.

Days for Girls announced its “Masks4Millions” campaign Friday, calling on its network of more than 70,000 volunteers to begin creating cotton masks alongside cotton panty liners. Wetzel, team leader for the Days for Girls Flagstaff Team and West Regional Representative for Days for Girls International, and a group of both new and longtime local sewers, now numbering more than 60, began their work a few days earlier.

“I think it gives us a sense of purpose in a time when things are really out of control. We certainly don’t know who’s going to receive these masks, but we wish them health and blessing, the same as we do with Days for Girls,” Wetzel said. “Days for Girls is not alone in this effort. We know we’ve got seamstresses all over the city and we’re just trying to be the point people to disseminate information, get people to sewing machines and have lots and lots of masks coming in.”

The pattern suggested by Days for Girls is relatively simple — made of just two pieces of fabric and two pieces of elastic.

“For anybody who can sew in a relatively straight line, it shouldn’t be a challenge,” Wetzel said. “We’re not looking for museum-quality pieces. We want to get people covered.”

Completing a mask takes about 15 minutes to complete, though, and with all of Flagstaff’s craft stores now out of elastic, these sewers will soon have to begin switching to more complicated fabric ties and other solutions.

Seamstress Katie Preston, owner of Skunk Mountain Sewing, has already created 65 masks and is working with the Flagstaff Fire Department to determine a place where local mask-makers can safely drop off their creations for these first responders.

Early last week, Preston began creating reusable wipes as a supplement to now-scarce baby wipes and toilet paper, giving away more than 200 to Navajo and Hopi communities. When she heard of the shortage of personal protective equipment, she also switched to masks.

“It’s amazing. It’s totally grassroots, started by hundreds of people all at the same time,” Preston said of the growing effort to create the masks. “That’s what I love about it and I hope we all as individuals, if we have the time, just keep it up.”

The mask-makers are still seeking ways to safely sanitize and drop off their masks and will be announcing updates via social media. They are encouraging other members of the community to find unique ways to help during the pandemic, even apart from the sewing machine.

“We should take the initiative as individuals to help the community. Use your creative skills to figure out what that is because not everybody is a seamstress,” Preston said. “Everybody has something. Whatever you have to offer, we want to see it.”

Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253.

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