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story.lead_photo.caption Debbie Schrimpf, the cafeteria manager for St. Peter Interparish School, spent much of her morning Tuesday sewing pieces of material together to make face masks to distribute to whomever needs them. With school out, Schrimpf and fellow lunch ladies wanted to remain productive and help others. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.
For more news about the COVID-19 coronavirus, access the News Tribune Health section.

As the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States, many people are looking for ways to help and finding comfort in making and donating face masks.

Social media posts shared across the country ask those who are able to sew face masks and donate them to health care workers, hospitals and nursing homes dealing with shortages of surgical masks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these masks are used for those who have confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19, as it helps prevent contamination of the area when the person coughs or sneezes.

Last week, the CDC updated its guidance, advising hospitals that run low on surgical masks to consider ways to reuse them, the Associated Press reported. For hospitals that run out, the CDC states scarfs or bandanas could be used as a last resort.

Angela Hughes-Letterman has taken up that call locally after seeing the direct need for masks in area nursing homes, including where her grandmother lives. She said she started with that, sending her masks to area homes, then went on a local Facebook group offering to make and provide masks for those who work with the elderly or immunocompromised.

That night, she received roughly 300 responses.

"I sat there and just cried," Hughes-Letterman said, describing the response as overwhelming.

After that, she jumped into action, staying up the entire night to sew masks, making roughly 10 per hour and using nearly all of the supplies she had on hand.

"I'm a do-er," Hughes-Letterman said, noting she has been a teacher for more than 20 years, and taking on challenges is in her nature. "I'm one of those people who runs into the frying pan."

The project has helped give her a sense of control in a stressful time, Hughes-Letterman said, which in turn helps her deal with the anxiety and fear that comes with the growing spread of the virus. It also helps set an example for her two young children, she said.

She's not the only one.

Employees of St. Peter Interparish School are also helping out, making masks for medical facilities. The school posted on Facebook that cafeteria employees who would normally be serving students instead spent their time sewing the masks that were donated Wednesday.

Last week, JOANN Fabric and Craft Stores announced participating locations would offer sewing machines, material and guidance to help people make masks, with all the supplies donated to those taking part. At the Jefferson City store, an employee said demand has been high and the local store had run out of supplies for their kits, specifically the elastic recommended to be used in masks.

The announcement last week also noted organizations in need of supplies such as fabric, elastic and clear vinyl should email [email protected]

Jamie Patterson, vice president of marketing and business development for Jefferson City Medical Group, pointed to the updated CDC guidelines as well as some available online tutorials for how to make masks, noting the "CDC does not offer an 'approved' pattern."

"I do think this is something helpful that people can do," Patterson said. "We are actually considering putting out a request for these here at JCMG. If we were to receive any, we would wash and sterilize them and then hold them as a last resort if needed. We know that there is a PPE shortage nationwide, so I do think the public can help by making cloth masks as a just-in-case tool."

Jessica Royston, marketing and communications manager for SSM Health, said St. Mary's Hospital in Jefferson City has been getting many calls and messages from people wanting to help sew masks.

"While we most certainly appreciate our community's willingness to help, at this time we are not actively soliciting for homemade masks," Royston said. "I have been forwarding those contacts to the head of our mission office in St. Louis, who is collecting those names and following up."

Abigail Distler, public relations/marketing coordinator at Capital Region Medical Center, said CRMC has the necessary supplies on hand for patients in the facility. However, those supplies could diminish quickly if there is a surge in patients, she said, so the medical center is accepting donations.

"Capital Region Medical Center is humbled and grateful for the outpouring of support from our community to provide supplies as we make preparations to care for all of our patients including potential patients with COVID-19," Distler said. "We are truly blessed to serve such an amazing community."

Anyone looking to donate masks to CRMC should contact Karen Sholes at [email protected] or 573-632-5032.

Patterson reiterated what many other health care professionals have noted — homemade masks should not replace surgical masks or N95s, medical respirators recommended for health care professionals. Distler noted CRMC is especially seeking donations of the new N95 masks, which are becoming increasingly difficult to find.

That's where people like Cassie Huckabay come in. The former nurse and founder of My Fair Ellie, an online shop that sells bows and badge buddies, is collecting N95 masks for those who work in health care and don't have one, including those at clinics and urgent care facilities.

"The thing about the cloth masks is that they're not enough to protect those who work in health care," Huckabay said. "They are a great way to make the N95 mask last longer if you're putting it on the top of an N95 mask, and could be potentially great for pediatric patients who may be intimidated by the N95. But when it comes to protection, the science shows that a basic sew-at-home mask is not enough for health care workers in constant contact with the virus."

For those looking to help health care workers, Huckabay had a very simple piece of advice — stay home.

"Seriously. Stop taking your kids to Target just because it's open, stop leaving the house except in cases of absolute necessity," Huckabay said. "And when you do go grocery shopping, offer to porch drop-off for the elderly or immunocompromised."

Huckabay also cautioned people to be mindful when complaining about being stuck at home, as it can be hurtful for those who don't have that option.

"They're putting their life, and their family, on the line when they show up to work," Huckabay said.

She also suggested joining Help the Helpers on Facebook, a recently formed group that is stitching mask covers for health care workers or caregivers.

Huckabay said people should get creative about ways to give back — send takeout to the local urgent care clinic for lunch or cards to the elderly in nursing homes. (She noted most hospitals can't take homemade food, but they can take packaged snacks or restaurant takeout.) Many hospitals even offer e-card options that allow people to send digital cards to patients or staff.

The important thing is to find a way to help without endangering your own health.

As for the hand-sewing of masks, Hughes-Letterman said so many other Jefferson City residents are crafters and if more take part in the effort, there would be no shortage of face masks. She noted she had never made one before taking on this challenge, urging others to simply try it. She also encouraged people to seek out information from experts, adding her mother works with JCMG and has helped educate Hughes-Letterman on what's needed.

"It will take a village to get through this," Hughes-Letterman said.

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