How to Help with the N95 Mask Shortage

A homemade mask is a last resort

In the richest country in the world, health care workers have taken to social media to beg our leaders to supply them with the personal protective equipment (PPE) they need to prevent them from getting sick so they can continue to look after us during this crisis. You can view their tweets by following #GetMePPE.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently updated its website, which now states that in times of crisis, healthcare professionals can wear a homemade mask if proper masks have run out.

In settings where facemasks are not available, HCP [health care providers] might use homemade masks (e.g., bandana, scarf) for care of patients with COVID-19 as a last resort. However, homemade masks are not considered PPE, since their capability to protect HCP is unknown. Caution should be exercised when considering this option. Homemade masks should ideally be used in combination with a face shield that covers the entire front (that extends to the chin or below) and sides of the face.

Centers for Disease Control website

This downgrade of acceptable gear has horrified the medical community. When I asked my sister, a doctor, about homemade, sewn masks this morning, she said,

Sewn masks might work if an infected person wants to prevent their coughs and sneezes from flying around, which might help prevent spreading viruses. But sewn masks are not going to protect health care workers from getting viruses.

So how can we help?

To slow the spread of the virus and help reduce the strain on heath care workers and their dwindling equipment, first and foremost, stay home. Keeping separate from each other, we can work together for the benefit of all.

Once self-isolated at home and looking for activities to keep you busy, you can do the following.

1. Donate hoarded surgical or N95 masks

If you happen to have hoarded a pile of surgical or N95 masks, please donate them to health care workers. All will be forgiven. No one will judge you. Please just hand over the masks. If you know of anyone who has hoarded masks, please urge them to donate them. That will help to limit spread from infected doctors and nurses to everyone else.

If you have a health care worker in your social circle, give them the masks. If you don’t know a health care worker, check out this crowdsourced document that lists US hospitals and organizations accepting donated medical supplies.

2. Contact your elected representatives to demand they prioritize getting equipment to health care workers

The news continues to move dizzyingly fast. President Trump seems to have invoked the Defense Production Act, which grants him the power to order certain American companies to ramp up production of critically needed equipment in the interest of national defense. At the time of posting this blog, it was unclear exactly how Trump would use the Act.

While we wait to see how the invocation of the act unfolds, we can put pressure on our elected officials to get our health care workers PPE. Find your federal and state government officials’ contact information here and call them. When you call, you can say something like:

Hi, my name is [your name] from zip code [your zip code]. I’m calling to urge the Representative/Senator to prioritize personal protective equipment, including N95 masks, for our nation’s healthcare workers. Even as they brace for more Covid-19 cases, many hospitals have already begun to run short of crucial equipment. Please urge President Trump to work with private sector companies to produce the essential gear that our health care workers on the front line urgently need in order to protect themselves, their patients and the public. Thank you.

Or something like that. Edit as you see fit. I usually write recipes and rants…

3. Sew some masks

Some medical center employees are sewing masks or gluing together face shields, while other facilities are asking the public to sew masks for them out of medical-grade materials.

Many of my readers are makers. (Check out the Reusa-Bag map of people all over the world sewing cloth produce bags to hand out at the farmers’ markets.) Whether you’re an experienced sewer or someone just learning, making masks will keep you busy and give you a sense of purpose during this difficult time.

Patterns

You’ll find lots of patterns online for masks.

How to sew a face mask

Materials to use

This site compares different types of fabric for masks. Some of the hospitals requesting masks will provide medical-grade fabric.

Where to send your homemade masks

Again, the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve at breakneck speed. A google search yesterday turned up a handful of hospitals looking for volunteers to sew masks. Tonight, I don’t even know how to organize all the results.

One of the best resources that I’ve come across is the Facebook page Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies. It’s sort of like Tinder for makers who have made masks and health care workers looking for supplies. Before you start sewing, you may want to look there first and see who needs what.


If you have more information on patterns, where to send the masks or anything else, please leave a comment for other readers.

Thank you and stay safe!

8 Replies to “How to Help with the N95 Mask Shortage”

  1. I’m from Belgium. Every hospital here has there own sewing room at the moment. Some are run by staff others by volunteers, they make masks out of medical grade suplies. People at home make masks out of 100% cotton fabric (put it in a hot wash to sterilize them). The governement has released a sewing pattern. They are indeed only effective if you are ill, to prevent you from spreading it. I made some for staff at a nursing home. The elderly isolate them self but the staff still goes home and might get infected. So staff might be infected and not show symptoms, go to work and infect the elderly. So they wear the masks as a precasion. Stay home, stay safe!

  2. I love your blog! Did you see this NY Times Article: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/health/coronavirus-masks-reuse.html

    This hospitalize it attempting to decontaminate masks and re-use. If this method works it means being safe while wasting less. I really hope it is effective and other health facilities can replicate.

  3. I would suggest folks contact their local hospitals first before they start sewing.
    Here’s a message I found on Facebook.
    “At the moment, please DO NOT start sewing. (Name of local hospital) is working on an approved pattern and material for these cloth face masks, as they will all need to be made with the exact same pattern and materials.”

  4. So sad that people are hoarding masks.

  5. You may find this pattern for a DIY mask useful. It’s been lab tested for 80-90% effectiveness https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/3050689/how-make-your-own-mask-hong-kong-scientists

  6. Ironically I used the first pattern you had on the list last week when i just made a mask for the hell of it. Definitely going to make some more of these. I unfortunately dont have a sewing machine but I can still make as many as I can in my spare time.

  7. […] unused medical supplies, including homemade masks. This StarTribune article has more details, and Zero Waste Chef offers guidelines for making […]

Leave a Reply