- Associated Press - Sunday, April 5, 2020

ABILENE, Texas (AP) - It wasn’t surprising to see homemade face masks pop up on social media last week.

Given the widely-publicized shortage of high-grade masks, it seemed natural that the Big Country’s army of quilters would take up the call.

Not much more than a week ago, Jenni Riley connected with her friends Effie McClendon and Nicole Reed when they realized they had the power to do something about the mask shortage.

“All three of us have spouses in the medical field,” Riley told the Abilene Reporter News. “I think that’s probably what sparked our passion to begin with, we can easily see a face behind the masks we’re making.

Recommendations from a friend working in the Hendrick Medical Center emergency room led to the ladies sewing unique masks fitted with a pocket in front. Within the pouch it would hold a replaceable piece of filtering material rated at the same strength as an official N95 mask but donated by an air-conditioning company.

“We are working specifically with the ER to get 200 pocketed masks to them, and we’re trying to do that as quickly as we can,” Riley said.

But it’s not just these three women working on the problem anymore. The Facebook group they created, Medical “Mask” Force of Abilene, had at last count swelled to 876 members.

“We’re really thankful for that because it’s created a community of people that we never really knew,” Riley said. “Abilene showed up for each other.”

One of those ladies is Alex Swize, a physical therapist who also has her own quilting business on the side.

“I started off just making them for friends and family, and then I was like, ‘You know what? I bet our health care workers really need these,’” she said. “So, I decided to start donating them to Hendrick. That’s when I got invited to the Facebook group.”

Swize said a single mask might take 30 minutes to make from scratch, depending on the complexity of the design. The pocket masks are a little more involved, in addition to the pocket it also has follows the contours of the nose and face, but it helps that the group divides some of the more tedious labor.

The fabric for the masks Swize was currently working on was pre-cut for her by another member of the group.

“That’s been nice, it saved me a lot of time. I’m able to do so much more because I have them all cut out,” she said.

Some members serve as runners, picking up batches of finished masks to drop off at the hospital or at other organizations that have requested their help. Still others will launder the masks, ensuring they are effectively sterilized before going out.

There has been some question as to the effectiveness of masks for the general public.

The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control have stated masks other than the N95 won’t necessarily protect you from COVID-19. Yet the scenes from South Korea, where they’ve so far successfully flattened the curve of infection for the pandemic, show scores of people wearing masks in public.

The official position seems to conflict with common sense, and so I asked my cousin Angela Erdrich, a doctor in Minneapolis, for her opinion. She pointed me to a 2008 study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, part of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

The purpose of the study was to evaluate the efficacy of masks ranging from those professionally produced to homemade ones in the midst of an influenza outbreak like in 1918. While that illness differs from a coronavirus, some of the problems are the same when it came to suppressing droplets from the mouth. Essentially, the study arrived at the same conclusion as what my common sense told me – it’s better than nothing.

That’s how Swize was looking at it, too.

“This may not protect 100 percent, but a barrier is a barrier,” she said. “As our healthcare system starts to run out of products and production can’t keep up, this is going to be the next best thing.”

Since the coronavirus can be asymptomatic, meaning you might have it but don’t know it, wearing a mask might not prevent your infection, but you infecting those around you. In effect, you would wear a mask to protect me and I would wear one to protect you.

It could be why South Korea may have been able to limit the spread of COVID-19 within the same time period that we’ve seen it explode here.

Last week, Hendrick Medical Center CEO Brad Holland assured the public the hospital has enough masks and personal protective equipment for the foreseeable future and there is no reason to think otherwise. But given the extreme nature of what could come, Hendrick has posted on its website a printable set of instructions for constructing your own mask and where to drop off completed ones at the hospital.

It’s in that spirit that Swize keeps making them, for whomever needs them.

“I’ve really been blessed to do this,” she said. “I really felt called to donate to anybody and everybody that needs them.”

Riley said they are making masks for the homeless and to be dropped off at organizations such as Betty Hardwick Center and Pregnancy Resource Center, Hospice of the Big Country and West Texas Rehabilitation Center.

“There’s a lot of people that are working on getting official. We’ve asked their office managers to reach out to us instead of individual nurses,” she said.

One thing that will be remembered about the coronavirus age is how quickly everything started moving. For Riley, it’s a source of inspiration.

“We’re working together in ways that we couldn’t have foreseen over a week ago and It’s really cool, it’s empowering other people and it’s lifting us up,” she said. “It’s really more than just the masks that we’re sending at this point.”

Their group reflects something more, in her eyes.

“It’s about the community that we’ve created, and how the bond is in that connection,” Riley said. “We love Abilene, we want it to stay safe and to thrive.”

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