Hand-sewn masks used as backup by health systems as they face shortage of equipment

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Healthcare workers across the nation are facing a shortage of critical supplies, including medical masks.

Allina Health and Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota recently put out a call to the public to sew masks to help fill the shortage.
5 EYEWITNESS News has received many questions about whether these types of homemade masks are effective or even safe.

“We do believe there is a role for cloth and hand-sewn masks somewhere in the health system,” responded Helen Strike, the COVID-19 system incident commander at Allina Health.

Strike emphasized the cloth masks would not be used by the doctors and nurses who deal directly with COVID-19 patients. Instead, they may be used by other medical staff or patients as a backup option, as N-95 masks continue to be in short supply.

"If you are in a place where you are in a critical shortage, covering your mouth with a cloth mask or a bandana would be better than nothing,” Strike said.

Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota added: “These [cloth] masks are meant to first be given to care providers and medical staff who may benefit from wearing a mask but are not necessarily working directly with a patient with COVID-19 symptoms. While supply chains are working quickly to increase production of PPE masks, these handmade masks are meant to offer some much-needed relief to hospitals and clinics in a time of need.”

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Strike acknowledged the evidence about the effectiveness of cloth masks is mixed. Infectious disease staff members at Allina Health are looking at all of the research to try to determine the best use for them.

“It’s something we’re looking at carefully because we use evidence-based practice in health care to make sure were doing the right thing,” Strike said. “I think that’s our duty to make sure that if we do use them, that we’re using them in a way that keeps our patients and our caregivers safe.”

The Centers for Disease Control also posted on its website that homemade masks should be a last resort, saying they “are not considered personal protective equipment since their capability to protect health care personnel is unknown.”

Still, Strike said there may be reasonable use for the general public.

“If I’m coughing or sneezing, at least it will trap the moisture from me,” said Lolita Cox, president of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter of the American Sewing Guild.

Her chapter, which includes more than 200 people, has quickly responded to the call to help sew cloth masks.

"If there is a need, we sew,” added former chapter president Lori Clark. “As people who sew, we kind of have the attitude that we can make anything. So when we saw the request for masks, that was right up our alley.”

If you plan to help this effort, Allina Health recommends tightly woven fabric made of 100% cotton. You can find the CDC-compliant pattern here.

Masks can be safely donated daily through April 5, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. at the Allina Health hospital locations listed here.

The masks will be cleaned and sterilized before they are distributed.