Update April 7, 2020
Posted March 25, 2020
As health care providers grapple with a severe national shortage of masks and other gear to protect against COVID-19, some Amish residents in Lancaster County are among those firing up sewing machines to help.
Sylvan Stoltzfus and his wife own Bird-in-Hand Fabric, which is serving as a hub for dozens of families in their Amish community sewing about 13,000 fabric masks to donate to Lancaster Health Center after tour guide company LoKal Experiences helped make arrangements.
“Lancaster County in itself is just a very giving place,” Stoltzfus said. “We decided that if we can find people to help us, we would donate fabric and materials for these masks for protection from this virus.”
Once regular surgical masks given to patients run out, the center intends to use these as a better option than asking that patients cover their mouth with tissue — which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested if necessary.
“Our bottom line is, if we run out of masks for patients, cloth masks still help contain droplets and they serve as a reminder not to touch your face while seeking care,” the center said in an emailed statement, noting it’s working “around the clock” to get appropriate personal protective equipment. It said it has the recommended N95 respirators for staff, but they're getting low.
Different types of masks
Those N95 respirators designed for health care use provide the best breathing protection for working directly with COVID-19 patients. Cloth masks are not the same, as Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine noted recently, saying they're “not super effective but I guess it's better than nothing.”
The CDC recently said using homemade masks may become necessary “as a last resort” if N95s are not available. Before that, it suggests a variety of other options including using respirators intended for non-health care use — something becoming apparent across the country as health care leaders ask other industries to donate any N95 masks they have.
An organization representing Pennsylvania hospitals said this week that some could run out of masks and other equipment in a matter of days or even hours as they become flooded with COVID-19 patients, according to The Associated Press.
Pennsylvania Department of Health spokesman Nate Wardle said in an email that Pennsylvania had more than 1 million N95 masks in its stockpile before COVID-19 hit. It is getting more, including some from federal stockpiles, he wrote, but “we anticipate that we will need to use all the masks we have, and likely will need more.”
Several area nursing homes are also working with volunteer mask-makers, and all four major Lancaster-area hospitals expressed gratitude for similar offers, although most are still considering whether or how to accept.
— Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital said community members and its own volunteers “are working from a standard template that our infectious disease experts have reviewed to ensure the cloth masks provide adequate protection.”
— Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital both reported working to determine what donated items they can accept.
— UPMC Lititz said it's “not using or recommending the use of home-sewn masks at this time” but directs those who want to donate goods or services to use the form at UPMCPinnacle.com/Contact.