Surgical masks and sewing machines: Southeast Portland responds
It started with two boxes in a hallway closet.
In mid-March, Brentwood-Darlington resident Liz Thompson remembered she had two small but important items stored in her house: A box of surgical-style face masks, and another package of nitrile gloves. She decided someone else needed them more than she did, so she posted to Facebook, and offered the items up to healthcare professionals. That became the start of something much bigger.
Through her job as Chief Operating Officer of a medical laboratory consulting business, Thompson was acutely aware of the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Demand for these products had outgrown supply as the COVID-19 coronavirus spread across the globe. That meant healthcare workers sometimes had to work in dangerous situations without appropriate protection.
After a positive response to her first post, Thompson decided to expand her outreach using two neighborhood Facebook groups – "Buy Nothing Brentwood-Darlington" and "Brentwood-Darlington Connected Neighbors". She asked group members to donate any PPE they had stored in their own homes.
Many responded by offering up protective gear from their earthquake kits, or left over from home repair projects. A few even gave despite their own personal hardships. "One lady who's actually a grocery store cashier – and worried about her job, and her money, and paying her rent – was still generous enough to donate gloves and other stuff," Thompson remarked.
As more neighbors responded, Thompson coordinated times when she could pick up the PPE from people's front porches – preferably without any face-to-face contact. She gathered the last of the donated gear on March 22, the day before Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced her "Stay Home, Save Lives" executive order.
The Facebook drive netted approximately 80 N95 respirators, 80 surgical-style masks, and 100 pairs of gloves. Thompson handed off the whole cache to a healthcare worker she knows, who then donated the PPE to a local hospital.
Thompson believes these donations support both the mental and physical health of medical workers and first responders. With sufficient PPE, they can feel confident they're doing everything possible to protect their patients and themselves.
"It really makes them not as scared to work anymore," Thompson explained.
A few weeks later, in early April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) handed down additional safety guidelines for the public, recommending wearing face masks when outside the home – admitting cloth masks cannot stop incoming viruses, but could possibly help those already infected from infecting others.
As Inner Southeast Portland residents self-isolated, many pursued craft projects – and, for some, that meant dusting off their sewing machines. Patterns for stitching together protective cloth face masks popped up all over social media. As the community recognized a growing need for these masks, they stepped up to fill it.
Woodstock resident Terry Newton noticed a post on the neighborhood website Nextdoor. Willamette View, a large retirement community in neighboring Milwaukie, needed 800 face masks for residents and staff to wear to help protect them from the coronavirus, especially since COVID-19 often affects older people more acutely, and can spread quickly in close living quarters.
Newton began sewing masks from fabric scraps she already had on hand, using industrial sewing machines in her garage, and skills she learned while making swimsuits for Janzten. That background taught her how to cut and sew quickly, so she can put together a face mask in less than ten minutes. To date, she estimates she's made more than 225 of them – some for the retirement community – and some for people in her neighborhood.
"I think everybody should do their part – you know, do what they can do. And that happens to be my expertise," Newton said.
She added that many elderly individuals and some young families have requested masks from her, after noticing her comments on social media. She keeps notes of who needs them and when they plan to come by, and then she leaves the finished products out on her front porch for them to pick up without risking any face-to-face contact.
Newton asks for nothing in return for her efforts. Still, recipients sometimes repay her with timely offerings left in her mailbox: A dozen fresh eggs from their chickens, a few rolls of toilet paper, a container of household wipes. One man offered to mow her lawn.
Meanwhile, Willamette View has met its initial request for 800 cloth masks, thanks to donations from the public and from residents who live on-site. Volunteers are now working to produce another 1,000 masks so that everyone can have more than one, as a backup on laundry day or in case the first one is damaged.
David Kohnstamm, Director of Wellness at Willamette View, said residents appreciate the community's outpouring of time and effort. "They're very pleased to have [the masks], and they feel well taken care of. No one's happy to be in this situation, but they're happy to feel they have support."
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