By Emma Castleberry
As the coronavirus began its spread in January, it quickly became apparent that our country has a critical shortage of protective gear for front-line workers. In April, the CDC issued guidance recommending that people wear face masks in public places, and the already dwindling supply of this vital equipment was further strained. “My top priority is keeping my family safe and keeping the community safe,” says Dr. Carly Brown of Ashewell Medical Group. “Medical workers like me can’t do that without personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, gloves, face shields and protective gowns that shield us from the virus. Medical workers carry the highest risk of exposure, and we need to stay healthy to keep you healthy.” Brown adds that it’s not just medical workers—masks are also needed for grocery store employees, pharmacists and others who support the essential functions of a society. “Yet, here we are, in the midst of a global pandemic, running out of PPE,” she says. “That should terrify everyone. It terrifies me.”
Recognizing the severity of the situation, Brown posted an emotional call-to-action video on Facebook. “Volunteers and organizations from across the board responded: medical workers, sewers, artists, teachers, manufacturers, community organizers, public officials, small business owners, an engineer and material suppliers,” she says. This call-to-action has evolved into Masks of Love WNC. Brown has raised $21,380 from online donations, and The Dogwood Health Trust provided additional support. Masks of Love WNC accepts donations on its webpage and order form. If someone can’t afford a mask, they can get one for free. Any money raised covers expenses in order for the group to keep making more masks as long as needed. “Now, our core team of about a dozen have worked around the clock to get two types of masks into production: a frontline mask for medical workers and a citizen mask for the public,” she says.
Finding the materials to make masks has been a challenge, especially because of the disruption to supply chains caused by the virus. This has required some resourcefulness and creativity. “For instance, we’ve purchased furnace filters at the big box stores and are using the filter material in those for our masks,” says Brown.
Phillip Koch of Saniway Vacuum has been using materials from his store to make masks for donation. He read a study that reported HEPA vacuum cleaner bags were 85 percent effective at filtering particles five times smaller than coronavirus. “Since I operate a local vacuum cleaner store and HEPA vacuum bags are abundant, I decided to learn how to use a sewing machine and make masks for family, friends and the community,” Koch says. “Assisted by my mother
Joan Burke, we have been spending our evenings after work together making masks.”
Ashli Arnold, resident costume designer and costume shop manager at Flat Rock Playhouse (FRP), is leading a team in sewing face masks for AdventHealth and Pardee UNC Health Care. The team is working in the vacated dressing rooms at the closed theater. A team of three to five can produce about 150 masks in 10 hours, spread across two work sessions. “We are heartbroken that we cannot perform for our audiences as we usually do, but we are thrilled to use our skills, materials and incredible staff to serve our community in a new way,” says Lindsay Patton, FRP’s social media coordinator.
The list of community members involved in the mask-making effort is long. Pattiy Torno, an artist at CURVE Studios, is making masks of 100 percent woven cotton and lycra. “Me and some of the other artists here at CURVE have also put together about 450 kits for others to sew,” she says. Parkdale Mills, Inc., in Gastonia is working to build a manufacturing supply chain for masks. Cycling apparel company Kitsbow in Old Fort has pivoted their production to making face masks and shields. This month’s feature artist, Roberta Diggs, has made more than 200 masks using her sewing talents.
Brown says Masks of Love desperately needs volunteer home sewers and can pay commercial sewers to meet the great demand for masks. “People can help us by volunteering to sew, donating materials or contributing money at our webpage,” she says. “If you can’t do those things, you can help us by spreading the word.”