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Stuck-at-home Portlanders take matters into their own hands to combat a medical mask shortage.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Blanca Plata at home in her apartment in Northwest Portland. She got together with neighbors to make cotton surgical masks to free up higher grade masks for health workers fighting the spread of the new coronavirus which causes COVID-19. With Plata's make up and body painting business on hold, she wanted to help public health but also needed to stay busy and keep her spirits up. With a steady stream of bad news washing over them and their friends, neighbors Blanca Plata and Melissa Moline had the same idea at the same time: Make masks.

Wanting to help medical workers who were facing a shortage of face masks that protect against the new coronavirus, they started making cotton surgical masks in their apartments.

Plata, a makeup artist who specializes in full body paint in her business Blanca Plata Body Art , had seen her livelihood come to a standstill in early March as parties were canceled and fear of physical intimacy exploded. Moline, a Washington licensed architect and a metalsmith, was working from home drafting in computer-assisted design software but also missed using her hands in her side hustle, making jewelry as Moline Jewelry

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Melissa Moline, Jade Plata and her mom Blanca Plata at the Plata apartment in Northwest Portland. They joined neighbors to make cotton surgical masks to free up higher grade masks for health workers fighting the spread of the new coronavirus which causes COVID-19. On Friday, March 20, Plata pulled out her sewing machine and Moline made a mask template. Moline cut the fabric, six layers at a time, around a cardboard pattern the shape of a battle axe blade. Plata started sewing the pieces together and bagged them up. Working in separate apartments, but sometimes meeting briefly to finesse the design or trade supplies, at their peak they were producing 40 masks per day.

"I saw my friend who is a charge nurse for Portland Providence in the labor and delivery ward and she said they get one (surgical) mask a week," Moline said during the first week of Oregon's "Stay home, stay healthy" order.

"My friend posted something about people making homemade masks and that's when I put out a call on our Facebook Community Happenings page," Moline said. "Blanca was on it and another person in our building, Sharon Camarda, donated fabric, so I went and picked it up."

Word also went out that Providence St. Vincent needed masks for their oncology patients. As dire reports came in from Europe and then the United States of deadly shortages of protective gear, they felt they couldn't, in good conscience, not help.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - The homemade cotton mask has a pocket for a filter which is far better at catching tiny particles than the regular T-shirt cotton is.

Moline drove around town collecting fabric donations.

"I did a big circle and picked up picked up fabric off of people's porches," she said. "I've been ironing and cutting and Blanca has been sewing."

She didn't know anyone else was doing it, so Moline made the pattern. It consists of two curved shapes that fit together, making a bulge that accommodates the nose and mouth. Elastic loops go over the ears. Other tutorials popped up online showing how to make one that is a rectangle with three pleats. That one is modeled on the thin surgical masks worn by everyone from hospital cleaners to surgeons where there is no fear of the infection by microscopic particles like the coronavirus. (Moline wears an N95 when making jewelry.)

To protect from virus' fine aerosol transmission, most health workers require at least tight-fitting N95 masks with a filter, if not full protective helmets that look like deep sea diving gear.

Yanking the supply chain

However, Portland's Bureau of Emergency Management put out a notice asking people not to donate homemade masks to the bureau or to area medical facilities. Oregon Health & Science University explicitly said they would not accept them.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - An example of the type of N95 mask in short supply. Home made masks will in theory free up these for use by health workers on the front line against COVID-19. Melissa Moline, a Washington  architect, also uses these when making silver jewelry.

Plata and Moline countered naysayers who pointed out that such cotton masks would be ineffective again the coronavirus. They explained that these homemade cotton masks are meant to be used in lower-risk procedures, freeing up the N95 and better personal protective equipment for workers on the front lines of COVID-19.

"I've asked my friend and she's told me like eight times (that they want them)," she said. "She's a charge nurse so she knows what she's talking about. She's talked to the donation people, and other hospitals are taking them, too. I think there's, what, 40% protection, hypothetically? That's what I've read. I'm not an expert, so I don't know. But it's better than nothing."

Soon many people were offering to make them that Plata made an instructional video. Others offered constructive suggestions, such as make it three-ply with a pocket for a filter, and add a wire pipe cleaner to the top so it molds more tightly around the nose.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Melissa Moline with one of the cotton face masks she makes with her friend Blanca Plata to free up higher grade masks for health workers fighting the spread of the new coronavirus which causes COVID-19. With Moline's architectural business confined to home she made the template and cuts the fabric. Moline is also a silversmith who makes jewelry and like Plata, wanted to use her hands and stay busy.

As Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Trevor Noah of "The Daily Show," the two most common ways to get the virus are breathing in a carrier's coughs and sneezes, or from touching a door handle then touching your eyes, nose or mouth. So, these hand-made cotton masks are better than nothing against someone's coughs and sneezes. Handwashing after touching things in public remains the other best practice. Which is why these two wear gloves and face masks as they work.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - An example of a standard pleated surgical mask used in hospitals. The cotton masks might replace these, freeing them up for use by other workers who in turn can give their N95 masks to workers in areas of high risk of new coronavirus infection. Plata wears this when she is packing up the laundered cotton masks for distribution to hospitals, friends and neighbors.

Hyperlocal need

Plata said she didn't want to get bogged down in the details of who wanted what type of mask. She continued cranking out masks for anyone who asked, including fellow residents, leaving them in Ziploc bags out outside her apartment door.

"I'm making them to keep myself sane," she said. "Because honestly, I was very depressed, just sitting here not doing nothing. I was home, not working for 10 days, just looking at the Facebook. I need to do something, and I feel so good to help out."

The need became hyperlocal. Beyond Facebook, most residents are minimizing their time in the halls and laundry rooms.

"Now I want to make for most of the children in the building, and for the seniors," Plata said.

Her family was about to have a quinceanera, or 15th birthday, party for her daughter Jade, but that was canceled. It was a huge disappointment. Jade now spends part of her day cutting out mask panels.

Plata refuses to accept money for them, since most of the materials were donated.

The "war effort" took off quickly, and bigger more efficient groups soon emerged and merged.

Moline now is pushing people to join the Crafters Against COVID-19 *PDX* group on Facebook. "They have a drop-off site, they have fabric and elastic," she said. "They're very organized, we're just small."

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Jade Plata at home helping her mother make cotton surgical masks to free up higher grade masks for healthworkers fighting the spread of the new coronavirus which causes COVID-19. Social distancing rules meant her quinceanera was canceled.

Ramping up

As confirmed COVID-19 cases increased every week, the news served up the occasional shocking image, like a story in the New York Post about nurses at Mount Sinai West in Manhattan wearing trash bags over their scrubs.

National fabric and craft stores have joined in, such as Joann Fabric, which posted this guide to making masks.

In Portland, local wooden phone case maker Toast retooled to make 1,000 reusable clear plastic face shields per week. And Britt Howard, the founder of the Portland Garment Factory in Montavilla, also sprang into action. This firm does contract sewing, making everything from wedding dresses to outdoor apparel. They recently began making masks and hospital gowns.

"We have two goals: Stay in business and help our community," Howard said on Instagram. As a B Corp — a company with an ethical as well as financial bottom line — the latter is part of their mission.

The first idea was to make 1,000 a week and donate them or sell them at cost. Then as the economy tanked and regular apparel orders dried up, and she pivoted to making, packing and shipping masks.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Melissa Moline holds one of the cotton masks being made in homes all across the world to help healthworkers who are running short on personal protective gear due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a series of passionate updates on social media, Howard explained that they are losing money on every item, and are looking for donations of cash as well as material.

The main mask is called the Frontline Barrier, made of medical-grade polypropylene. The Sideline is for the everyday person in a medical setting dealing with people but not COVID-19 patients. The Helper mask is a washable mask for people who for example, deliver food. It is also the kind of mask the general public might wear in the street or supermarket, especially as N95 masks have become almost impossible to find.

Plata has a message for all those stressed about being trapped inside by a killer virus raging outside.

"Honestly, I say stop panicking and keep sewing. Just make the ones that you can that work for you. I'm very sure people will take them to neighbors. Maybe not to the hospital, but maybe to the seniors, the taxi driver, the workers."

Added Moline: "Because if it's 40%, then it's better than nothing."


A typical list of urgent needs, this one from University of Chicago Medicine:

• Disinfectant wipes

• Surgical masks

• N95 masks

• Sterile, cotton-tipped swabs (BD #220531)

According to CDC spokesperson Arleen Porcell: "Homemade face masks are not considered personal protective equipment, and should be an option only when there are absolutely no respirators or face masks left, and used with other protective equipment, such as face shields. It's important to note that this strategy is considered a last resort and does not adhere to the typical standards of care in the US, but acknowledges the hard realities on the ground."

However, the CDC later updated its guidance on "Strategies for Optimizing the Supply of Facemasks" and recommends optimizing the supply of PPE masks for health care workers and limiting use by patients.

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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