Last week, when Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York called on businesses “to get creative” regarding ways to help during the coronavirus pandemic, NY-based fashion designer Christian Siriano answered his plea. “If @NYGovCuomo says we need masks my team will help make some. I have a full sewing team still on staff working from home that can help,” the designer tweeted. Since then, dozens of brands have followed suit.
But, according to Erica Patel, MD, an Internal Medicine resident at L.A. County Hospital, “There are strict requirements on what is considered medical-grade to protect healthcare workers. Sometimes homemade supplies don't always make the cut.” Because of these guidelines, many of the homemade masks that both designers and concerned citizens have donated to their local hospitals have been rejected.
Unless homemade masks are being produced using medical-grade material, it’s unlikely that they will properly protect medical professionals on the frontlines. Doctors and nurses need a very specific type of face mask known as an N95 mask, a highly protective respirator mask that keeps those closest to the virus from being infected. Unfortunately, they’re in dangerously short supply.
“To say that demand exceeds supply is a huge understatement,” Dr. Patel told us. “Unfortunately, we haven't seen necessary action by the federal government to mass-produce the desperately needed PPEs.”
The growing panic surrounding the spread of COVID-19 has led many people to begin purchasing N95 masks for personal use, something that both the CDC and healthcare professionals have explicitly said is not necessary. Amazon has since stopped selling N95 respirators to the general public, along with paper surgical masks, face shields, gowns, gloves, and more, according to Recode. “I can definitely say that non-healthcare workers do NOT need surgical or N95 masks outside of the home unless they have respiratory symptoms themselves, they're living with someone with COVID and are caring for them, or they have a medical illness that puts them at high risk, like cancer on chemotherapy,” says Dr. Patel.
Upon learning this, many brands switched their focus from sewing homemade masks to raising money and/or donating funds to purchase CDC-approved N95 masks from manufacturers. Handbag designer Gelareh Mizrahi is one of many people who have pressed pause on their normal routines in order to focus on obtaining the necessary PPE products for healthcare workers nationwide. Using her supply chain contacts in China, Mizrahi was able to find a manufacturer with over 2 million N95 masks in stock. Now all she needs are the funds to purchase them. By donating to her Go Fund Me page, you can help to secure respirator masks for healthcare professionals in need. Mizrahi has also partnered up with Direct Relief, a large-scale organization to help with distribution and acquisition of emergency medical supplies, and Project N95, a New York-based organization working to get protective masks into the hands of doctors throughout the city.
Fashion brands including Burberry, Uniqlo, Mango, and more have already pledged to donate millions of dollars worth of PPE products to hospitals around the globe.
Other PPEs like face shields, disposable gowns, goggles, scrub caps, booties to cover shoes, and full-body biohazard suits are also needed by hospital staff right now, says Dr. Patel. But they too need to be made using medical-grade materials. If you think that you or your business has the capacity to manufacture items of this nature, it’s recommended that you first fill out this form by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). The NYCEDC’s website also contains information on how to donate any PPEs that you own personally, as well as other ways to give money to the cause.
As for homemade masks for non-healthcare workers, the need for them is still somewhat up for discussion. The CDC clearly states that unless you’re caring for someone who is ill, you do not need to wear any type of face mask when traveling outside. “Face masks may be in short supply and they should be saved for caregivers,” their website reads. According to Dr. Patel, “Some studies show that it's more dangerous to wear homemade masks compared to hospital-grade masks because the sweat can trap more microbes and the material is too porous so it allows viruses to go through the mask.” She does say, though, that there isn’t currently enough research to say with 100% certainty whether or not wearing nothing at all is safer than wearing a homemade mask, or vice versa.
Things get more complicated when you consider Wednesday’s announcement by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, which advised all citizens of the metropolis to wear some form of face-covering when going on essential trips to the grocery store, pharmacy, etc. “The face coverings do not have to be hospital-grade but need to cover the nose and mouth,” a representative from L.A.’s Riverside County said. “For example, bandannas, fabric masks, and neck gaiters are acceptable. Fabric covers and bandannas can be washed and used again.”
The new protocol was made following new information on COVID-19. “When the situation changes, the rulebook changes,” says Riverside Country’s public health officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser.
Governor Cuomo advised that anyone who is over the age of 70 and/or is immuno-compromised should wear a mask at all times, as well as anyone who is around someone who fits either of these descriptions.
Even so, the CDC has yet to change its stance on the matter of homemade masks. "I can tell you that the data and this issue of whether it's going to contribute [to prevention] is being aggressively reviewed as we speak," CDC Director Robert Redfield told NPR.
If you’re able to make yourself and your family masks at home, just make sure to use the right materials. “The thicker the fabric, the better: think heavy cotton T-shirt or a thick, felt-like fabric,” Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech scientist told The New York Times. The Times also suggests using 100% cotton fabric. For the best results, only use brand-new materials, and wash them on the warmest possible setting prior to starting construction. If you only make one mask, simply hand wash it at night and ensure that it is fully dry before wearing it again.
Wearing a face mask is just one measure you can take to stay healthy, but it’s not the only way to protect yourself and the people around you. Social distancing, staying inside as much as possible, and washing your hands often will also go a long way in reducing the spread of the virus.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the CDC website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.