Volunteers deliver thousands of masks to Hennepin Healthcare

Three people hold bags of face masks.
A group of volunteers has made and delivered 4,000 fabric masks to Hennepin Healthcare emergency department staff and patients. Deborah Zvosec (right) co-founded the group, MN Masks On in March. Zvosec, her husband Dr. Stephen Smith (left) and nurse Anthony Gentile are holding bags of the cloth masks.
Photo by Ge Her | Courtesy of MN Masks On

For the last two months a group of volunteers has been busy making cloth masks to donate to Hennepin Healthcare’s emergency department staff and patients. The group delivered its 4,000th mask on Tuesday, said Deborah Zvosec, co-founder of MN Masks On.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, the hospital only had enough masks for patients displaying symptoms of the virus, said Zvosec, whose husband is an emergency room physician at the hospital.

“We were concerned about the safety of the emergency department, health care providers and the other patients in the department who could be contacting asymptomatic patients who would be transmitting it,” she said. 

The masks are given to each patient who comes to the emergency room. And they are given to nonmedical staff, such as administrators. Patients can take the masks with them after they’re discharged.

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Cindy McDonnell, the group’s co-founder who’s been sewing since she was a child, researched a number of designs to find the right one — something easy to make and easy to wear. At first, McDonnell chose a design which used a wire in the top of the masks to help them fit better over the nose. But there was a problem with that.

“When we started washing masks with the wires, the wires became all mangled,” said McDonnell. “So then, we had to alter the mask design and we put a dart on the top of the nose. We call it the dart mask.”

MN Masks On has around 50 people who prepare, sew and deliver the masks. Most materials are donated. It takes between 10 to 12 minutes to make a mask, said McDonnell.

The group has placed the design specifics and a video tutorial of how to make the masks on its website.

The masks are popular with patients, said Dr. Stephen Smith, an emergency room physician and Zvosec’s husband. He said although he can’t see patients smile after they put the masks on he “can see their eyes crinkle.”

Smith said cloth masks can’t totally protect the wearer from aerosol transmission of the virus. However, he said they are effective in preventing the wearer from spreading the virus to others because masks block the large drops of saliva which are expelled when people breathe and talk.

Smith said people should get used to wearing masks. As restrictions loosen and people begin to gather in larger numbers again, he said they will have to keep practicing social distancing and covering their faces.

"We can't go back to normal. That is absolutely clear,” said Smith. “We have to figure out some way that we get the economy going again where we don't spread the virus around. That, for sure, means everyone's got to wear a mask all the time while they're interacting with people." 

Correction (May 12, 2020): A previous version of this story misspelled Cindy McDonnell’s last name.