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Nurse or seamstress? Hospital staff create homemade masks

The masks won't be used to treat COVID-19 patients. Instead, they'll serve as backup supplies to preserve resources needed most.

WHEAT RIDGE, Colo. — In a designated room at Lutheran Medical Center in Wheat Ridge, an assembly line is up and running.

Nurses and other staff members have already created hundreds of masks out of materials found in their own hospital.

“It’s is a paper material, a type of wrap that we wrap instruments in to sterilize them to use for surgery,” explained Lesia Hatlestad, a nurse and clinical practice specialist for the hospital’s operating room.

At a time when personal protective equipment (PPE) is a precious resource, hospital staff members were brainstorming solutions.

The goal wasn’t to create homemade masks to treat COVID19 patients, because those patients and their medical providers need something safer – N95 masks.

Instead, the goal was to create a backup supply for the more general-use face masks, the ones staff members wear more frequently.

“The intent is for these to be used as procedure masks,” Hatlestad said. “So if a provider needed to just enter a patient room and protect themselves, this would be a minimal amount of protection without having to use our N95s, which we want to preserve for those (COVID-19) positive patients.”

Hatlestad was part of the team that designed the pattern for her hospital. Soon other nurses, staff members and even doctors pitched in to help.

“We got a large room, and I think we ended up with seven or eight sewing machines that staff brought in, which we clean daily, and we started a production line,” said fellow nurse, and director of perioperative services at the hospital, Deborah Hedrick.

Hedrick said they are making hundreds of masks a day, and other hospitals within SCL Health are using the same pattern and process.

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When dealing with an actual COVID-19 patient, the CDC considers homemade masks a “last resort.” 

And Lutheran Medical Center, like many other hospitals in Colorado, is not currently accepting homemade masks donated by members of the public.

“According to guidelines for respiratory viruses that are transmitted by droplets, the safest thing to do is to wear an N95 respirator,” explained 9Health Medical Expert Dr. Payal Kohli. “When that’s not available, a surgical mask is the next best option. When you don’t have a surgical mask, unfortunately, you’re left with a last resort, which is these homemade masks.

“The efficacy of homemade masks is unknown,” she added. “But compared to nothing, we believe it offers some level of protection.”

The nursing staff at Lutheran Medical Center said they are grateful for the public’s willingness to help. For now, they’ll continue making their own masks in house, where they can control the production and the cleanliness of the project.

“This is very surreal time,” Hatlestad said. “That we can’t imagine we would have to resort to this.”

"We appreciate people in the community who want to help out at home,” added Hedrick. “But this way we’ve got specific people doing each [job]. It’s like a production line.”

Banner Health, which has five hospitals in Colorado, is also creating some masks for employees.

According to a news release on the Banner Health website, hospitals will not use these homemade masks to treat COVID-19 patients.

"Volunteers use secure sterile wrap, which is a blue cloth usually use to wrap sterilized surgical equipment. The material is 99-percent microbial-resistant and is easily transformed into masks needed for general tasks around Banner hospitals where N95 masks are not required. The goal is to create a total of 50,000 masks," the online release read, in part.

Banner Health is also one of the hospital systems accepting homemade masks donated by the public. 

Spokeswoman Sara Quale said those masks will not be used to treat COVID-19 patients, rather offered to staff as “social comfort masks” in other areas of the hospital.  

“While Banner does not endorse personal mask use as effective in preventing disease transmission, we recognize that team members may want to engage in the use of these masks for their own personal relief,” Quale said in an email Wednesday.

Centura is not currently accepting homemade mask donations from the public, but encourages interested donors to contact them by email in case that policy should change.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) says they are accepting donations through helpcoloradonow.com, but any homemade equipment would go through testing to determine whether it's viable for first responders or health care workers.

HealthONE is not accepting homemade masks right now.

In an email, spokeswoman Stephine Sullivan said:

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cautions against the use of homemade masks because their capability to protect healthcare providers is unknown. While we have the supplies and equipment we need at this time, we are doing everything possible to secure personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks, face shields, and gowns. We have also implemented protocols recommended by the CDC to conserve those items. Additionally, we are awaiting guidance from the Food and Drug administration on reprocessing personal protective equipment for re-use.”

Instead, Sullivan encouraged people to donate any unused manufactured, approved PPE they might have.

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