Updated: 2:20 p.m. | Posted: 8:53 a.m.
Hospitals across the country are pleading for masks and other medical supplies, and among those rising to the occasion are people who sew — including some here in Minnesota.
For now, the COVID-19 outbreak in Minnesota and Wisconsin pales in comparison to places like New York and California, but hospitals here are already feeling the pinch.
Helen Strike is the incident commander for the COVID-19 outbreak for the Minneapolis-based Allina Health system.
“We are being cautious and we’re making sure our staff have the equipment that we need,” Strike said. “But at the rate we’re going through our supplies of these things, we’re not getting them restored by the companies that we traditionally use.”
Health-care providers and local governments are even setting up drop-offs for any medical supplies the public can spare. Hennepin County is opening drop-off sites for donated new and unused personal protective equipment (PPE) in Minneapolis starting Sunday.
Amid all those efforts, enter Judy Walker.
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She’s a founder of Sew Good Goods, a charity that enlists sewists — that’s what they’re called — to help people in need, like making pillowcases for people in shelters and tote bags for immigrants.
She saw news reports of people making medical masks in Indiana and swung into action. She started calling around, checked in with Blue Cross Blue Shield and Allina, and pitched the project on the Sew Good Goods website.
“I think that it is just kind of striking a chord with people,” Walker said. “We’re sort of cooped up. The best thing to do is not to be out. And I think it really calls on people to find a way to have a positive impact.”
Walker said many people who sew already have a stash of cotton fabric that would work for masks. But because the outbreak is forcing some people to stay out of fabric stores, Walker said she hit up Michele Hoaglund, owner of Treadle Yard Goods, a fabric shop at the corner of Grand and Hamline avenues in St. Paul.
Hoaglund spent Saturday rounding up cotton and flannel — cheap, easy to sew and breathable, but tightly woven fabric. Finding elastic for ear loops is a challenge, she said, as some suppliers are shut down by the outbreak.
Hoaglund said she’s handing out free kits on Sunday for people to start making the masks.
“We have kits available, 50 kits, for people that don’t have fabric, or supplies, or may not be able to afford them. And each kit will make 28 masks,” she said.
Hoaglund said not all the kits have elastic, but fabric ties are another option. They’ll be available at her Grand Avenue shop, at 1338 Grand Ave., between 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday — with curbside pickup as an option.
“It’s basically first-come, first-served,” Hoaglund said.
Update: The store gave away the 48 kits it had prepared in less than 10 minutes Sunday.
Homemade masks may seem a quaint effort, or an empty gesture, when officials have been talking about the need for more than a billion medical masks in the U.S. in the weeks and months ahead.
And Strike, the incident commander for Allina, said homemade masks aren’t suitable for intensive care units, or for staff directly involved in treating COVID-19 cases. But they still can serve an important purpose.
“These are masks that folks can wear when they’re doing … simple tasks around patients who are not in isolation,” Strike said. “Patients who need to wear a mask when they’re traveling, for droplet precautions, can use those masks, so they’ll have a very specific place in the hospital for us to use them.”
Strike said that will save surgical and respirator masks for more critical needs, and help stretch out the supply.
You can find a pattern and instructions for the masks at the Sew Good Goods website. Finished masks can be dropped off at Allina hospitals, and there’s more information at Allina’s coronavirus website.
Correction (March 22, 2020): In a previous version of this story, Michele Hoaglund’s name was misspelled. This story has been corrected and updated.