The number of reported cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, ticks up each day, both nationwide and in North Texas. Schools are shut down. Businesses are closed, leaving employees out of work.
So late last week, not knowing what else to do, Wilkins pulled out her sewing machine, dusted it off and got to work. Wilkins, of Celina, is one of dozens of volunteers across North Texas who are sewing hospital masks to donate to medical providers around the area.
Wilkins works part time as a bartender at Whiskey Cake in Plano and also runs a home bakery. But the restaurant where she works is shut down for the time being, and her baking business has slowed down considerably since the beginning of the outbreak of COVID-19 in the DFW area. So she's had more time on her hands than usual.
Last week, Wilkins got connected through Facebook with a group of volunteer mask makers. Some of the volunteers collect materials, others cut fabric and sew it into masks, and still others collect the masks and drop them off at facilities that need them. The group keeps a spreadsheet of healthcare providers that have requested masks and how many they need. Some of the volunteers have years of sewing experience, Wilkins said. Others, like her, don't.
"I would consider myself an intermediate sewer, at best," Wilkins said.
As the coronavirus pandemic has spread across the United States, hospitals nationwide are facing a critical shortage of N95 surgical masks. In response, some have put out calls for volunteers to sew homemade cloth masks and either drop them off or mail them to medical facilities. Last week, Wise Health System in Decatur posted on Facebook asking for community help. The post included a link to instructions showing how to make a mask.
"The critical shortage of masks worldwide is being felt at our hospital," the Facebook post read. "If you can sew, we are asking our community members to assist during this time."
A hospital in Stillwater, Oklahoma, made a similar request on Facebook last week, saying the homemade masks would be given to nonclinical staff or worried patients, which would allow the hospital to save its clinical N95 masks for healthcare workers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers healthcare facilities guidance on how to cope when mask supplies are depleted, including using masks beyond their intended shelf lives. As a last resort, the agency suggests that healthcare workers wrap bandannas or scarves around their faces while treating patients with COVID-19. Wilkins said the group's masks are intended to help keep things from getting to that point.
"At this point, anything that we're producing is still going to be better than a bandanna around your face," she said.
"At this point, anything that we're producing is still going to be better than a bandanna around your face." — Rachael Wilkins, volunteer
Colby Badiyan, a registered nurse in Plano, helped the group come up with a filter to go in the masks that would be effective against the coronavirus — not just coffee filters or paper towels, as she'd seen suggested. After some research, she found filtering material that, when placed in a pocket sewn into the masks, would be fine enough to do the job. With the filter, the homemade masks, when worn in combination with a plastic shield that covers the entire face, would make a suitable substitute when hospitals run out of N95 masks, she said.
"I wish we could be sending professionals into this battle confident in their protective equipment with no concern for shortages," Badiyan said. "Unfortunately, this is not the case, and I hope this changes soon."
By Wednesday, Tracie Shipman, a volunteer from Frisco, had washed, cut, ironed and pieced together enough fabric for about 200 masks. The next job was sewing them together, she said.
"I've been doing my own little production line," she said.
Under normal circumstances, Shipman works from home as an independent corporate leadership coach. But her work is mostly shut down for at least a few more weeks, so she has plenty of time on her hands.
When she heard about the mask-sewing group, Shipman realized she was in a unique position to help. She already had a sewing machine and knew how to use it. Her kids are grown and out of the house, so she isn't trying to help them with schoolwork. So she decided to lend a hand, cutting and sewing masks, helping distribute mask-making material to other volunteers and picking up other volunteers' masks once they were done.
Sherrie Salas, the group's main organizer, said most of the volunteers in the group are in the same position as Shipman. They see the project as a way to contribute during a time of crisis, she said. Even volunteers who don't know how to sew have pitched in, dropping off material or picking up masks from volunteers who shouldn't be outside for health reasons.
It's been gratifying to see how many people have gotten involved, Salas said. She thinks most people want to find a way to help during a time when so much help is needed. People who sew usually spend their time making things for themselves or for close friends or family, Salas said. It's not often that there's a way for them to lend their skills to the broader community. When there are so many things she can't do anything about, Salas said she's glad to be able to help fill a critical need.
"I can do this, so here I am," Salas said. "And, like everybody else, I'm sitting at home anyway."