Behind the Coronavirus Masks With Northeast Ohio Volunteers, Companies and Hospitals

Mar 31, 2020

The nation’s shortage of masks for health care workers could be alleviated by the efforts of Gov. Mike DeWine, volunteers organizing online, and two Ohio companies.

Sewing machines around Northeast Ohio have been buzzing in recent weeks as volunteers turn out surgical masks made of cotton to protect against coronavirus. Corey Cargill is organizing an effort on Facebook called “Make-A-Mask Akron.”

“To start off it took us about 30 minutes to make one, but after we got it down, we could probably pump out one every 10 minutes,” Cargill said.

The University of Akron graphic design major is coordinating volunteers online from around Northeast Ohio who want to learn to make masks using materials supplied by Hudson-based Joann Fabrics.

“I personally do not know how to sew, but I reached out to my co-worker. We kept a safe distance from each other," Cargill said.

"I’m cutting the fabrics into 7x9 squares. And then I’m using two sheets, so I’m laying those on top of each other. From there, I’m cutting the elastic straps in half. I’m pinning it to the fabric. And then I pin that, I hand it to Chris Burton, and then he sews it together.”

Plenty of time and plenty of material
Cargill works at the Akron-Summit County Public Library in its maker space but has been home since the library closed. He has a ready supply of fabric.

“I really like collared shirts, and I prefer flannels. I work at the library so I’m required to wear them. So I have a lot of them that I no longer wear,” he said.

He tears up many of those shirts to turn into masks. And he’s always looking for elastic, since online orders won’t be delivered until next month.

“That’s the hardest piece, but I think Summa has some materials, too?” he said.

The Centers For Disease Control recommend the N95 respirator mask for physicians. But the cotton surgical masks can still be used by the public to prevent community spread of coronavirus.
Credit CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL

Sewing For Summa
For about five years, hundreds of Sewing For Summa volunteers have been making everything from heart pillows for cardiac patients to fleece blankets for the cancer center. Angela Smith, with the hospital’s volunteer services department, said they’re now focused on making masks for Summa employees.

“This far in the program, we’ve received 1,808 masks and that number is growing," she said. "We have a sewing pattern that was approved through our infection control director. If the community would like to get involved, we’re encouraging them to donate to the national stockpile [of masks].”

Spring sewing break
There are also volunteers at Kent State University who are using this down time to busy themselves and their sewing machines. Students and faculty at the Fashion School and in the School of Theatre and Dance are sewing masks. Robin Ruth is head of the costume shop, and says the cotton masks she’s sewing will go to another Facebook group, the Million Mask Challenge.

“I’m a quilter so I followed them. They request 100% woven cotton, and they ask that’s prewashed so you’re not involved in shrinkage. [As I understand it], these will be going through hospital laundries," Ruth said.

“These are obviously not N-95 compatible, but I think they’re really useful for secondary people [such as] grocery store workers [and] people in nursing homes; there’s a lot of people requesting them.”

Prerna Narayanan (left) and Roshini Chandran are among the volunteers sewing masks for Make-A-Mask Akron.
Credit COREY CARGILL

N-95 v. cotton
The cotton masks made by volunteers have a looser fit than the N-95 Respirator mask, which offers better protection. N-95 masks are the ones medical professionals define as Personal Protective Equipment, and they’ve been in short supply. Painters, construction workers, and even manicurists use them and are being asked to donate any extras they might have. N-95 masks are recommended by the CDC to be used once, unless they’re sterilized through a new process developed by Columbus-based Battelle and given FDA approval earlier this week after much prodding from DeWine.

“We’re frantically trying to get enough of these masks, and we have a solution, at least for part of the problem, in that we can clean 80,000 of these every single day,” DeWine said.

Machines are already coming online in some of the hardest-hit areas, like New York City and Seattle. But back in Akron, Cargill and his fellow volunteers continue sewing cotton masks that they hope will help in some small way.

“Right now, I’m not at work so I have some time. And if I can donate that back in some way to people who are on the front lines, I want to do that," he said. "So I do see it as a call to action. Not just for my generation; I think anybody who can help, should help."

Cleveland-based MetroHealth has posted information on donating masks and supplies here.