Eastern Idaho seamstresses step up in face of mask shortage

IDAHO FALLS — There is a shortage of face masks across the country. Idaho Falls hospitals are fortunate to still have enough for now. But many other eastern Idaho facilities have not been so lucky. Health care centers such as pediatric centers have had their supply limited, and workers at essential businesses such as grocery stores have wished for masks but been unable to find them.

Eastern Idahoans have banded together to sew masks for those in their community affected by the shortage. They have created a group called Idaho Falls Sewing Sisters. Dozens of people have stepped up to volunteer, and hundreds of masks have been made. The group currently has received requests for nearly 4,000 masks. Places requesting masks include urgent care centers, pediatric centers, Life Flight and nursing homes.

“The biggest thing we need are seamstresses. They don’t have to be a professional seamstress, just somebody who can sew,” said Ranae Johnson, one of the group’s administrators.

Similar efforts are gaining steam in the Treasure Valley. A “Medical Mask Sewing Group” is making handmade masks “to help our medical community in the Treasure Valley and across the U.S.,” said the group’s Facebook page. Founder Karissa Simmons Patterson has also started a GoFundMe page.

“We have a group of over 1,000 individuals working to make these masks and distribute them for free to our community,” Simmons Patterson posted to the page Saturday. “In the last two days alone we have distributed over 1,000 masks locally. We have requests for 7,000 more.” A dollar donation is enough to sponsor one mask, she said. The group is also accepting donations of bias tape, elastic, and 100% cotton and flannel fabrics.

Depending on the speed of the sewer, mask-making can be slow-going. Last Thursday, Johnson spent nine hours sewing and ended up with 24 masks.

The effort operates largely through Facebook through a group called Masks for Idaho Falls Sewing Sisters. Those looking to help can post in the group offering their sewing services and a group administrator will contact them with information.

The group has a wealth of resources that include approved sewing designs, a list of material that can be used and where to obtain material.

Once a volunteer has made a mask, they can drop them off at a list of drop-off areas the group has. After someone began stealing the masks, the group stopped publicly disclosing the drop-off areas.

The Sewing Sisters group has gotten help from eastern Idaho businesses as well.

The owner of Labelle Design Studio has spent days cutting out fabric with her laser cutter. OneSource Home Health and Hospice donated $200 worth of material, D&L cleaners donated elastic, and employees at A-B-See Vision Care have volunteered to run errands and buy supplies for the group. The Idaho Falls JOANN Fabrics and Crafts has donated material for handmade masks as part of the company’s nationwide Make to Give effort.

“Everyone’s trying to stay alive, and we have so many people asking for masks. I don’t think there’s anything more important than helping people at this time,” Johnson said.

The effectiveness of homemade masks is debated, but medical professionals have suggested they can lengthen the life of an N95 mask when worn over one, possibly decrease spread of contagious diseases and help remind wearers not to touch their faces.

The CDC instructs that “in settings where face masks are not available, HCP (health care professionals) might use homemade masks (e.g., bandana, scarf) for care of patients with COVID-19 as a last resort. However, homemade masks are not considered PPE, since their capability to protect HCP is unknown. Caution should be exercised when considering this option. Homemade masks should ideally be used in combination with a face shield that covers the entire front (that extends to the chin or below) and sides of the face.”