Coronavirus help: Bay Area community sews, delivers DIY face masks to first responders, healthcare workers

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Tuesday, March 24, 2020
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A coalition of tailors across the Bay Area is using their talents for a great cause - To provide essential workers with a very essential layer of protection.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- Across the Bay Area, many have noticed several community efforts to sew and deliver do-it-yourself (DIY) face masks to first responders and healthcare workers.

Make no mistake, health officials emphasize N95 masks are the only ones known to properly provide real protection to those on the front line.

However, the community is hoping their efforts will bring a small layer of protection to all healthcare workers lacking supplies.

Volunteers explained they want to make a difference, even if from a distance.

A coalition of tailors across the Bay Area is focusing their talent on the task.

Harbir Kaur Bhatia, the head of the Community Benefit Department at SiliconSage Builders said, "If they don't end up needing these things, that's okay. We worked towards saving lives."

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Bhatia is also the page administrator for a private Facebook page titled "Community Medical Masks," where people offer their help.

While the federal government assures us it's stepping up manufacturing and shipment of needed medical supplies, several healthcare workers told ABC7 News that resources are just not here yet.

Volunteers said public pleas for help also highlight the growing need.

"I started seeing posts on my Facebook of nurses- friends of mine- who were searching for face masks," People with Empathy co-founder, Christine Von Raesfeld told ABC7 News. "Who were offering money to pay for face masks online and saying that priority is going to the ER and to the ICU nurses."

Community groups and non-profit organizations who spoke with ABC7 News explained the goal is to get homemade masks to healthcare workers who are not on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We cannot necessarily support the frontline of the COVID-19 respondents, but what we can do is help the other medical professionals who are working on non-COVID related cases," Bhatia added. "Because we can't forget that there are still cases out there of people having diabetes, heart issues, who have injured themselves and they still need to have masks."

"Right now, we're working on supplying a couple things to one of the local clinics in Santa Clara County," Bhatia continued. "A nursing home and even Kaiser is in the queue. And now we're actually going to be building more masks to drop them off at Valley Medical."

The Valley Medical Center Foundation shared this link, providing a "How to" on hand-sewn masks. According to the foundation, donated homemade masks are only meant for non-patient care staff.

"Donations and reusable, hand-sewn masks are being accepted. These masks will be used by non-patient care staff as added protection as we face the COVID-19 crisis," the website reads.

VMC Foundation said every item donated gets evaluated by professionals who are qualified to vet the equipment. Those professionals determine where they would be most effective.

"These are not N95 masks," People with Empathy co-founder Spandan Chakrabarti said. "You shouldn't use them like they're N95 masks, but they are better than nothing."

"Technically speaking, yes. It is better than nothing," ABC7 Special Correspondent Dr. Alok Patel weighed in.

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"One thing I hear some of my colleagues doing is wearing an N95 mask, and then wearing another mask over it such as a cotton or sewn mask," he explained. "And the thought is that maybe that extra layer might make it so they can use that mask for longer. But this is a short term solution."

He said, in the fight against COVID-19, N95 masks provide specialized filtration and secure fit.

"So, while we look at these Do-It-Yourself products, there are a lot of variables you have to take into account to make the perfect mask," Dr. Patel said.

Bhatia told ABC7 News about the different levels of skill, "Some people are really skilled, and they're making the ones that can actually do inserts and the filters. And the other ones are making those that are recommended by a couple of the clinics."

She said several organizations combined their efforts to launch the big coalition over the weekend. Although the separate groups started their efforts weeks ago.

The Santa Clara Community Coalition is made possible through a network of nonprofits, community organizations and businesses including: Helping Tailors, Silicon Valley Voice, the Rotary Club of Santa Clara, IK Onkar Bridges, Joy of SEWA, American Red Cross, Khalsa Aid, Silicon Valley Gurdwara, Limitless Plastic LLC, Santa Clara Parade of Champions, Silicon Valley Central Chamber of Commerce, and County Supervisor Dave Cortese's office.

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So far, Bhatia said the coalition collectively made about 250 masks, and is hoping to make and deliver 1,000 before Friday. The effort is a sister program to the coalition's food pantry.

Bhatia said the coalition is going further to also help build face shields, meant to be used by those on the frontline.

Chakrabarti with People with Empathy said, "We're trying to go and say, 'Well, here is something til we bridge the gap and there's N95s for everybody."

He explained the group's mission is to connect different silos of healthcare and improve the quality of life for patients and care partners.

Dr. Patel said the masks could be helpful in another sense.

"They might remind people not to touch their face. Or if you see someone wearing a mask, it might remind you or that person to keep six feet distance," he explained.

"In the end, nothing is going to be as good, right now, as an N95. Which is why we need those masks first and foremost," Dr. Patel said. "But that is not to take away from the gratitude we have for our community trying to support us."

Check out this website to see how to make your own DIY mask.