Cheryl Vastola poses with one of the hundred or so masks she’s sewn in the past week, part of a nationwide volunteer effort to make face coverings amid a national shortage of N95 masks. (Photo Courtesy of Vastola)

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a national shortage of protective equipment, notably N95 masks, which are the most effective barrier for healthcare workers. And contrary to its earlier recommendation, the Centers for Disease Control is now advising all Americans to wear cloth masks as a protective barrier, which will only increase demand. KCAW’s Katherine Rose spoke with volunteers in Southeast Alaska who are working to bring that count up. 

This time of year, Cheryl Vastola, owner of Sewing Solutions, is usually up to her neck in frills and sparkles.

“It’s actually, probably one of the busiest times of year for me,” she says. “There’s prom, from both schools, from Mt. Edgecumbe and Sitka High. I usually do an average of between 50 and 60 prom dress alterations in any given season.”

But with no prom or other events on her calendar, Vastola expected a quiet spring. But that hasn’t happened. For the past week, she’s been making homemade masks. As a former nurse, she was hesitant at first. Homemade masks are not a replacement for the N95 masks used by healthcare professionals. But things are changing quickly as the coronavirus spreads all over the country, and Vastola found out that healthcare workers are asking for her help.

“I was contacted by a nurse who is now in Montana- she used to work at SEARHC. And she said ‘Absolutely we need them.’ She said they were using them to cover their N95s because they were so low on supplies,” Vastola says. “It wasn’t ideal but it gave them another barrier.”

So Vastola started sewing, making over 100 masks in the last week alone. 

“Reading about places where people are just slammed with patients and not having enough equipment is almost incomprehensible to me,” she says. “It absolutely breaks my heart. And if I can do anything to be helpful, I’ll do it.”

She’s not alone. Across the state and country, people who sew are putting their skills to use, making homemade masks and mask covers for healthcare workers and people in need.

In Haines, Sherri Loomis started the Southeast Alaska Mask Makers group, a spin-off of the Alaska Maskmakers group, with the hopes of addressing needs in Southeast communities. They’re partnering with lots of people, including quilters guilds, sewing groups, and Jo-Ann Fabrics in Juneau, which has put its staff to work making masks and donating fabric kits to at-home sewers. The group has been pretty productive so far. 

“If we count Juneau, I would say several thousand, just in the last week,” Loomis says.

Right now, they’re making two types of homemade masks, and they have a system for who gets them. Their first priority is people who work in essential services, followed by those at risk, non-essential services, then the general public. The homemade masks are not considered full protection from infection, but they should help.

The Southeast Mask Makers group is requesting two types of masks- the masks don’t prevent COVID-19 and aren’t a replacement for N95s but they provide an extra barrier. On Friday the CDC revised its position, recommending everyone, regardless of symptoms, wear a mask when in public to help reduce the rapid spread of the coronavirus. (Photo provided by Cheryl Vastola)

“They don’t prevent the COVID-19 virus, but they do add an extra layer of protection, mostly for yourself,” says Loomis.

Currently the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium says their N95 supplies are sufficient. Even so, SEARHC and the Emergency Operations Center in Sitka have called for volunteers to make these homemade, washable surgical masks, to prepare and help preserve their supply of the N95s. The Southeast Mask Makers group is partnering with SEARHC to help beef up their inventory — primarily for patients. And it’s unclear whether nurses locally — like those in Montana — are going to use homemade masks to cover their N95s. SEARHC says only that there are “careful reuse protocols” for masks.

And as for the general public, until recently the Centers for Disease Control has not recommended that people wear masks unless they are ill. But in light of the high number of infections in New York and California, the agency has revisited that recommendation. And on Thursday, the state’s chief medical officer Dr. Anne Zink recommended Alaskans wear homemade masks when they go out into public. Loomis expects the number of requests for masks will increase dramatically, and she’s already working around the clock.

“My volunteer community job has turned into pretty much a full-time job,” she says. “I can tell you right now, I’m not getting my house cleaned while I’m sheltering in place.”

She says the group welcomes more volunteers. In Sitka, Vastola says with social isolation being the new norm, making masks has been a way for people to connect. 

“There’s a couple social media sites that I’m on and they want pictures of everybody in their work space,” she says. “They wanted you to write what city and state you’re from, and there were people, just, all over the country. I don’t know. There isn’t a lot that pulls Americans together these days, but it seems like this is one thing where people are really coming out and supporting each other, and I love that.” 

Editors Note: If you’re interested in making masks or donating supplies, visit the Southeast Alaska Mask Makers facebook page for specific instructions and patterns, and info on where to drop off homemade masks in your community. Businesses and organizations can make order requests through a form provided on the page. Sitkans can check out the Sitka Mask Makers facebook page here.