CHARLOTTE – A group of seamstresses from Lancaster, S.C., recently donated 4,000 sewn fabric face masks to Atrium Health and is now ramping up efforts, hoping to deliver 40,000 more to the hospital network over the next three weeks.
The masks will initially be used for patients with flu-like symptoms who visit emergency rooms, outpatient facilities and testing centers. The goal is to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and take pressure off the hospital’s supply of personal protective equipment, like the N95 masks health care workers wear to protect themselves from patients with respiratory viruses.
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“Cloth masks are usually … they’re not fluid resistant, but [they do] act as a protective barrier covering your mouth,” said Dr. Anupama Neelakanta, an infectious disease physician at Atrium Health. “Any aerosols or droplets that come out of your mouth, it definitely helps prevent spread of that.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend cloth facemasks for health care workers, but Dr. Neelakanta said they could be used as a last resort if there is a surge in demand for N95 masks. She said Atrium Health currently has a strong supply of these masks, but that could change over time.
“We are not in any sort of shortages, but in anticipation of the surge, we are just making sure that we are prepared and that we don’t run out … that kind of scenario,” Dr. Neelakanta said. “It’s hard to say what happens to the supply chain, but I do suspect that since we do think that this epidemic is going to peak in a few weeks, that we will have increased demand for this.”
Over the past several weeks, Dr. Neelakanta has been working with nurses, key leaders throughout Atrium Health and the seamstresses, known as the Tree Tops Needlecrafters. Together, they’ve created a template for a sewn mask that meets CDC guidelines and can be used by medical workers after all existing face mask options are used.
The Tree Tops Needlecrafters have sewn many items for Atrium Health over the years, including pediatric pillowcases, seatbelt covers for cancer patients and isolette covers for infants in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Kathleen Sharp, a Lean Sensei with Atrium Health’s Performance Excellence Center, lives in the same neighborhood where the sewing group resides. She first came in contact with them when they transformed her wedding dress into dozens of “angel gowns.” Angel gowns are donated wedding dresses that are remade into baby burial gowns. They can also be used for baptisms or family pictures. The angel gowns created out of Sharp’s dress were donated to Levine Children’s Hospital and Atrium Health Pineville in December.
Once news spread of a nationwide shortage of masks due to the coronavirus, Sharp decided to pitch the Tree Top Needlecrafters their next project. The group said yes right away and Atrium Health got to work choosing the materials and a template.
Two days after getting the go-head, Sharp said the Tree Top Needlecrafters had 800 masks cut out.
“This is a fairly small group of ladies, but very committed, and they began sewing that,” she said. “We are now at 700 volunteer seamstresses across three states that are making these masks according to this particular pattern and using this specific fabrication.”
The masks are sewn using new cotton fabric and have a pocket inside for a medical-grade filter. Sharp said Electrolux donated 10,000 vacuum cleaner bags made with HEPA filtration fabric to the cause.
“We’re also sewing in washable filtration when we have that available to us,” she said.
Once Atrium Health receives the masks, they will go through a decontamination process before being distributed to the community. Sharp said all the masks will be washed using a hospital laundering procedure that involves a specific water temperature and treatment level of detergent.
Those interested in making the masks at home need only a basic knowledge of sewing. Sharp said people can even just cut the elastic bands or the pattern if they want to.
“This is not limited to professional seamstresses to be able to contribute to this,” Sharp said.
Want to help?
If you would like to join the Tree Top Needlecrafters along with several other local volunteer sewers, email communitybenefit@atrium health.org for more information.
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