Chicago-Area Fashion Designer, Businesses Turn to Mask-Making During Pandemic

Doctors have warned about a shortage of face masks and other personal protective equipme

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Several Chicago-area businesses have decided to switch gears and produce items to help first responders and health care workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

With the number of cases increasing in Illinois and across the country, doctors have warned about a shortage of personal protective equipment, specifically face masks.

Chicago fashion designer Christina Karin Monley said she has made almost 500 masks since Saturday using scrap fabric and her sewing machine.

"It makes you feel less helpless, and it empowers you and gives you motivation in the morning when you wake up and think – what am I going to do today?," Monley said.

Similarly, Ronda Real, the owner of Quick Stitch Banners in suburban Lombard, has been using her downtime to sew masks by using supplies in her warehouse.

"To know that it’s going for a good cause and it’s our fabric and they are washable… why would you not help?" Real told NBC 5.

Bill Purdue waterproofs basements for a living, but he has spent the past few days in his buddy's Washington, Indiana, auto trim and upholstery shop cutting rectangles of cotton fabric that his friend sews into face masks.

“Whatever it takes to get the job done, that's what I want to do,” said Purdue, 57, whose daughter works at the women's hospital in Evansville, Indiana. He and his friend Mike Rice responded to a Facebook post last week from Deaconess Health System in Evansville asking the public for help.

Deaconess spokeswoman Pam Hight said the hospital system realized it could face a shortage if local infections skyrocket like they have elsewhere. So officials produced and posted a how-to video that has being shared across the country.

“We had people who wanted to ship them to us from all over the United States and we started saying, ‘Please, please use them in your communities,'" she said. “It makes your heart warm; people are so good.”

She said Deaconess expects to collect thousands of masks this week at an off-hospital site and sanitize them before distributing them to nurses and doctors or sending them to local nursing homes and homeless shelters.

Federal officials had previously advised hospital workers to use surgical masks when treating patients who might be infected with coronavirus amid reports of dwindling supplies of fitted and more protective N95 respirator masks.

Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quietly updated its guidance, saying hospitals that run low on surgical masks should consider ways to reuse them or to use them through an entire shift. And if hospitals run out out, the CDC said, scarfs or bandanas could be used ”as a last resort,” though some health officials warned cloth masks might not work.

Still, the American Nurses Association expressed concern that the guidance changes were made only because of manufacturing challenges.

"Rationale for changes of this magnitude should be based on evidence that reflects a better understanding of the transmission of COVID-19," the association said in a statement. "It’s also concerning that these recommendations do not offer strategies to address the limited manufacturing and supply chain of necessary personal protective equipment (PPE). While the interim recommendations may assist in preserving the supply of N95 respirators and other PPE, it could also confuse health care professionals considering appropriate levels of protection that may be needed when caring for a known or suspected patient."

Meanwhile, some hospitals across the country have said they cannot accept homemade equipment.

At the Missouri Quilt Museum in Hamilton, Missouri, board members asked local hospitals if masks were needed and “they emphatically said yes,” said director Dakota Redford. Soon other health care providers, including ambulance crews and nursing homes, were requesting masks.

Crafts chain Joann Stores is making all of its 800-plus stores available for up to 10 people at each location to sew masks and hospital gowns, offering sewing machines and supplies, spokeswoman Amanda Hayes said.

To learn how to make masks for your local health care workers, Karin Monley has information on her Instagram page.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Sunday listed several other ways residents can help one another during the coronavirus pandemic.

NBC Chicago/Associated Press
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