People around the world are scrambling to gather "personal protective equipment" to protect themselves and others from COVID-19, the disease caused by a novel coronavirus.

Fabric face masks, when properly used, can help stop the spread of respiratory droplets, and community members are answering a call from local health care providers to make and donate them.

Cherokee Elder Care has begun a campaign to collect homemade masks, as "orders for standard/disposable masks are on long back-orders, due to both demand and supply chain issues," according to eldercare.cherokee.org. While being asked to stay at home, those who can sew are following online sewing patterns and recommendations.

Dr. John Galdamez, CEC executive medical director, internal medicine, recommends masks to be made of two layers of fabric with a filter like ones to be used in air conditioner filters. Some people say certain types of filters are hard to breathe through, and others are difficult to get from stores or online.

As a registered nurse and first responder for 45 years, Donnita McMullin Reilly Armstrong has a lot of experience wearing masks.

"I am making these masks to help out with the shortage of masks in the health care system for several of my past health care co-workers in the area. I'm also making them for people who are immune compromised in my neighborhood who are on chemo and have to go to hospitals or centers for treatment. They're also for people who have to be at work to serve the needs of the public, like grocery stores and Dollar Generals, which help us who live by the lake," she said in a Facebook post.

She reviewed numerous sewing tutorials before settling on one that would be most functional. Armstrong uses two layers of 100-percent cotton fabric and one layer of filter.

"There is much discussion over what to use. I chose flannel or quilt batting sewn in so it could be washed daily like it should be. The person wearing the mask has to be able to breathe through it," she said.

To help the top of the mask seal better and to prevent glasses from fogging, Armstrong chose to sew in a pipe cleaner or twist tie in the nose area. This will let the wearer shape it to her face. She chose ties instead of elastic for that reason. This can be bias tape or you can make your own. She said her ties are 20 inches long and she uses four per mask.

"I make my pleats go down toward the chin so the folds don't catch and collect bacteria, viruses, or other flying debris that health care workers deal with every day," said Armstrong.

Kate Baker said she and others are making them for fire districts in Cherokee County to extend the life of the N95 masks.

"We can wear them over those masks, which helps. We can also wear them when the N95 mask isn't warranted and protect ourselves and our patients," said Baker.

Tahlequah resident Holli Baker, 16, is learning how to make the masks so she can donate them to local hospitals.

"It gives me something to do when I can't get out and help any other way. I love the concept of these being reusable - you can wash them in a bleach solution to sterilize them - and that they cut down on waste a little bit," said Holli.

She also doubles the cotton fabric.

"Since it is doubled, it will also catch more of the smaller mist-sized droplets as well. Ideally, it should have a third layer in the center with a MERV-13 [Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value] rating to filter out viruses, but we don't know where to get that, so these masks are meant to help prevent transmission, but may not work 100 percent," she said.

Michelle Newton, Tahlequah Public Library youth coordinator, has been making masks in case family, friends, and other health care providers run out of them.

"I have donated them to friends and family who happen to work at NHS [Northeastern Health System] and one dentist office in town," she said. "I think the most important part in making the masks is to listen to what the health care people are telling you. There is a reason they need the masks made a special way. It would be disheartening to have a box of donations arrive, only to discover they can not be used because they were made incorrectly."

Some people are using ribbons for the ties, while others are using elastic hair bands. Elastic is being sought by those fashioning the masks. Heather Winn, at the OSU Extension Office, is looking for quarter-inch elastic because she cannot find any in stores.

N95 respirators and surgical face masks are examples of PPE, but supplies are limited in many places, although they are necessary for certain jobs and people with illnesses. According to John Hopkins Medicine, wearing lightweight disposable surgical masks is not recommended for members of the general public who do not have respiratory illnesses.

"Because they don't fit tightly, they may allow tiny infected droplets to get into the nose, mouth or eyes. Also, people with the virus on their hands who touch their face under a mask might become infected," states the John Hopkins Medicine website. "People with a respiratory illness can wear these masks to lessen their chance of infecting others. Bear in mind that stocking up on masks makes fewer available for sick patients and health care workers who need them."

The World Health Organization recommends wearing a mask if coughing or sneezing, but they are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water, according to www.who.int.

You can help

A Facebook group has been formed for locals interested in contributing to the cause: "Face Mask for Friends- Tahlequah," www.facebook.com/groups/1311594599229412. Those who may have a stockpile of N95 masks are asked to donate them to local health care providers. Masks may be dropped off at Cherokee Elder Care, 1387 W. Fourth St., Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, including links for mask tutorials, visit eldercare.cherokee.org.

Recommended for you