Fighting COVID With Homemade Masks

After new CDC recommendations, more people are making do-it-yourself masks to wear in public

Last week, two weeks after New York adopted a shelter-in-place order, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that everyone wear a face covering in public. Mayor Bill de Blasio and President Trump last week also recommended people wear face coverings, though Trump made a point of saying he would not follow the recommendation. 

Frailing wearing a mask she sewed together

Frailing wearing a mask she sewed together // Courtesy of Kristine Frailing 

Since medical masks are difficult to get, even for healthcare workers, Americans have turned to homemade masks for protection. 

Accordingly, hundreds of different instructional videos have appeared online, teaching both experienced sewers and novices to make their own masks. They are using everything from bandanas to scuba equipment.

Kristine Frailing, the owner and founder of the New York Sewing Center, has posted several tutorials on how to make CDC compliant cotton masks on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram. Since she posted the tutorial on Youtube two weeks ago, 117,000 people viewed it. 

Frailing got the idea from an article she read on the internet. As an experienced sewer, she wanted to help others because “a lot of people wanted to help, but they did not know how,” she said. Her tutorials are suitable for beginners. 

Although Frailing also makes masks for medical workers, her priority is to make masks for her relatives.  

“I am making masks for my entire family,” she said. “My grandmother is 80 and is trying to stay quarantined. My uncle has a heart condition, and he lives with her. My parents and brothers are in the working field every day. My family is in the grocery store industry, and they do not have protection at all. ”

Linda Prospero, a writer and retired journalist who lives in Princeton NJ, stumbled across a tutorial on Facebook. The video showed how to make a simple mask out of a pee-pee pad for dogs. Sewing is not necessary for this kind of mask. Prospero started making them and mailed them to family members in New Jersey, New Orleans, and London. 

Later on, she switched to making cloth masks out of fabric. Her husband cuts the cloth for her, and Prospero sews. They have made about 30 masks so far, some of which are made from leftover fabric from a skirt Prospero made years ago. Prospero offers the masks to her neighbours, friends, and even her mailman.

Prospero is surprised more people did not start wearing masks a long time ago. She always thought masks were a good idea, especially because her brother-in-law, Dr. Joseph Prospero, an aerosol scientist, believes that cloth masks will help lower infection rates.

Dr. Prospero, a professor emeritus at the University of Miami School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, said that “the biggest mistake we are making is not having people wear masks.” He said that countries where a majority of citizens wore masks during the outbreak, were successful at flattening the curve. For example, he says cases in South Korea were on the rise until they initiated a policy that required people to wear masks. “All of a sudden, their rate of increase flattened out dramatically,” he said. 

Dr. Prospero wears a homemade mask when he goes out. He also wears a hat, gloves, and plastic eye protectors. “Your eyes are a very important mode of entry into your body with these viruses,” he said. 

However the effectiveness of homemade masks at protecting people from contracting COVID-19 has been called into question. Most homemade masks can not filter out tiny particles the way the standard medical mask, the N95, can. 

“There is still debate into how much infection we pick up through sneezes and coughs — the particles, or droplets that are big, we can see in the air,” Dr. Prospero said. “The question is how important these are, the big ones, in the spread of the virus as opposed to very fine particles.” 

He believes that masks have proven to be effective in other countries, so masks must be doing some good, even if they only prevent larger particles from passing through the mask. 

“They are certainly not 100 percent effective,” he said. “Nothing really is, but some masks are better than others. The N95 masks for doctors are clearly the preferred way to go. But that does not say that the benefit of wearing a homemade mask is trivial.”

Some homemade masks may work better than others. Innovative masks ranging from sewing a pocket for an interchangeable filter into a t-shirt mask to making masks from carpeting have resulted in creative alternatives that are almost as good as the N95. 

For instance, Tara McManus, a circus performer and a designer of protective clothing for fire performers who lives in Brooklyn, is making masks from HEPA vacuum bags. She has made about 80 so far.  Although she makes them at home, she wants these masks to only go to those on the frontlines. 

McManus wearing a mask made from a vacuum filter /Courtesy of Tara McManus

“These are the closest things we have to medical grade for medical workers,” she said. “There are a lot of regular citizens who don’t work in the medical field who bother me about getting these masks. Everyday people who just need them for grocery shopping should just use a bandana or something like it.”

Dr. Prospero pointed out that certain filters for air conditioners  and furnaces can be effective too. Preferred masks are those that can filter out smaller particles, and those that create a closer seal to the face. For example, Linda Prospero, puts a flexible metal piece around the top of her masks so that the wearer can bend the mask to fit snugly around his or her nose. 

Prospero says that if the CDC requires, not just recommends, that everyone start wearing masks, she is “going to do a whole lot more sewing.”

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