The situation since January 2020 concerning Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was very dismal, especially for health workers that were in the midst of treating people infected with the novel corona virus (nCoV) or SARS-CoV-2.
When the United States experienced an N 95 respirator crisis earlier this year, it was quite painful to see the volley of words between the leadership and the industry over the N 95 masks. In April, the governor of Kentucky, Andy Beshear even tried requesting multinational company 3M to temporarily license its patent for the N 95 respirators so that other manufacturers could begin to make the much required respirator.
In times of a viral pandemic, it turns out that an N 95 respirator is of immeasurable importance, since it is one of the commonly used face respirators that helps filter out at least 95% of most airborne particulate matter. Given the depleted inventory in medical establishments, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) currently recommends that alternatives to N 95 respirators were to be used wherever possible.
With the progression of COVID 19 and the ensuing dearth of protective gear like masks and gloves, concomitant price gouging, hoarding and general lack of preparedness amid the challenges to obtain personal protective equipment (PPE), people took to buying overpriced general use masks or sewing their own and of course, none of these could qualify as N 95 which are truly designed to protect from viral pathogens, in that one of the inner layers of the mask contains metal ions, the outer layer being chemically treated hydrophilic plastic, both layers meant to employ different mechanisms to inactivate influenza viruses. Now a homemade mask does not measure up to these capabilities and neither are they designed for easy breathing, given that they sit snug upon the face.
But, in a situation like this, you improvise. In a circumstances like these, the community does what it does best, rallies around and tries to find a solution. In my area of residence, the immediate urge, enthusiasm and unwavering spirit of community to pitch in to help was truly admirable. More than a month ago, some neighbours felt they had a bit more time working from home and put together a Seam Team to have masks stitched for the medical workers of the nearby hospital.
These were procedural masks, which are medical face masks that are considered for single use only, i.e. worn for only one procedure or in attending one patient. Surgical and procedural masks are not respirators and are not designed to create a complete seal nor are they meant to replace N 95 respirators, but in a crisis like this, they are truly better than nothing at all.
The team had the design approved in consultation with the Mayor and the Hospital staff, sourced the material, reached out to the community and discovered that many were willing to devote a bit of their time and effort to help out. As one volunteer expressed, it was a painstaking and gruelling task, cutting fabric that is not exactly easy to work with, amidst the pain of holding professional scissors for too long. Some sewing enthusiasts came up with design changes each time an easier method was discovered. Eventually everyone got the hang of it, best practices were shared over the phone, email and even across neighbourly balconies. Strict hygiene standards were maintained as reasonably expected and the creative brain was cranked up to capacity.
Our Seam Team has painstakingly crafted and donated over 2500 procedural masks and are still creating them. It has been quite amazing to be part of this effort. I have basic sewing skills, can sew a straight line and had a sewing machine gathering dust, (another one of those long forgotten pieces of equipment). This was therapeutic in a way, creating something of value, since I could very well cobble up 20 minutes a day to concentrate on a task that was more meditative in nature than sitting in padmasana (Yogic lotus posture) contrived to relax my mind all the while trying to battle distracting thoughts.
Then again, the spirit of people around me that really wish to give in times like these, where the confusion and delirium of uncertainty would suggest a more conservative and less selfless approach, constantly impresses and amazes me. It makes me realise that an intrinsic spirit of connectivity does exist and people always surprise you even in the most inopportune times.
Procedural masks by DE
I completed my 120th mask on the weekend and hurrah! I can sew a mask and I feel all the more better for it. As an aside, quite recently the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) signed a $126 million contract with 3M for the increased production of 26 million N 95 medical-grade masks per month, amid the growing need for the materials during the Corona virus pandemic.
And for the rest of us all, it is a labour of love. Amen.