COVID-19; Westford’s Former Health Director Spearheads Sewing Project to Provide Face Masks for Healthcare Professionals

Get daily Westford text alerts by subscribing here.

Retired Westford Health Director and registered nurse, Sandy Collins, is putting her free time to good use these days. As the COVID-19 virus spreads and healthcare providers are called upon to care for burgeoning numbers of infected patients, having enough protective gear becomes a growing priority. Collins is overseeing an effort by those with sewing ability to make face masks for the frontline workers. The country finds itself woefully short of the imperative protective gowns, gloves and face masks so necessary to keeping the virus from spreading. Here’s Collins’ story:

Modeling the product. COURTEY PHOTO

What are you doing?

To address an earnest request and an assessed need, we started a community grassroots effort to help our frontline providers and those who provide services to our vulnerable and elderly populations. We mobilized community needleworkers who are willing to make cloth face masks to donate to area hospitals, long term care facilities and emergency responders. Similar activity is happening across the country.

Why are you doing this?

It is obvious that healthcare providers everywhere desperately need N95 masks and personal protective equipment (PPE). They are working hard to care for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, risking their lives, and potentially exposing their own families, for all of us. Our first responders are going into homes and transporting patients while constantly worrying about being exposed. Because the situation has become more severe every day, and because resources are scarce or non-existent, we have been asked by our healthcare and long term facilities to help them by providing cloth masks. Although these masks are not the gold standard N95 masks, or surgical masks, they are desperately needed. The CDC specifies crisis capacity strategies when PPE is unavailable or limited, which includes the use of face masks. Unfortunately, this crisis is unprecedented, which requires unprecedented measures. This is why we are doing this. Westford is a very special community of helping, caring individuals, and knew if a call for help went out, people would respond. They did not disappoint!

A sewing machine is required for making the masks. COURTESY PHOTO

Describe how you sew the masks and what materials you use

There are so many tutorials on YouTube and many have been shared by the group on Facebook. One consistent instruction is to use tightly woven cotton. The patterns differ. Some use elastic, some ties, and some use bias tape. Some specifically call for flannel, others prefer no flannel. Some have pockets for filters, others not. So recommending a standard pattern is impossible. Our outstanding team continues to share tips, creative solutions, fabric, and even their sewing machines. They will be starting a Facebook page to help us connect with each other.

Are you sending them to a hospital?

Yes we have sent, and will continue to schedule deliveries to local hospitals including Emerson and Lowell General. We will add additional sites as requests come in. Fortunately, there are thousands of sewers around Boston creating masks for our Boston hospitals. We have filled requests from our Fire Department, Police Department, long-term-care facilities, and our senior center, which delivers Meals on Wheels and transports our elderly residents.

Is this effort part of what the Medical Reserve Corps volunteers are doing?

Yes, our own regional Upper Merrimack Valley Medical Reserve Corps, (UMVMRC.org), based in Westford, is helping by providing coordination and logistical support. The UMVMRC was started in 2004 after 9/11. Its mission is to assist regional Health Departments to respond to a flu pandemic, public health event, and to help their community in times of need. The unit currently has 550 medical and non- medical volunteers. Established after 9/11 and in preparation for the H1N1 flu pandemic, members have helped over the years with multiple events, including staffing at shelters and flu clinics. During this pandemic, they are calling our vulnerable residents and helping to deliver food and medication. New members are always welcomed, and the application can be found on their website.

What’s the pickup and delivery process?

I coordinate the pickups and schedule deliveries through Nancy Burns, our UMVMRC coordinator. She arranges volunteer drivers who sign up and are scheduled based on the requests I receive by the night before the scheduled pickup and delivery date. Once scheduled, both drivers and donors follow specific safety protocols, respecting the need for social distancing requirements. After assessing community needs and requests, masks are disseminated to all high priority groups.

Do you need more people who sew?

All who can sew are welcomed! We have a wonderful group of residents who have signed up to be part of our team. The more residents who are able to help, the quicker this response can reach the critical mass. Thankfully, our numbers are growing daily. Monday we had approximately 30 on the team and, as of today, we have 50. Members have even recruited other family members to sew. It’s heartwarming to see such a response. People have discovered that having a sense of purpose and the ability to connect to others with a similar purpose, has helped during these stressful days.

Do you need to have a sewing machine?

Yes, but people who don’t sew have helped by donating fabric and supplies and by offering to help with pickups and deliveries.

If people want to get involved, how should they let you know?

Managing the influx of requests and the offers to assist has become more challenging as the numbers grow. Currently, please email me at [email protected] and specify MASKS in the subject line. This enables me to do a quick query to capture all the emails pertaining to this effort. It also provides an easier way for residents to be provided pickup information.

How many masks have you and your volunteers made so far?

I can’t take any credit for sewing! I have only facilitated and implemented the effort. This extraordinary team, as of today, has made over 350 masks and we have nearly 20 pickups scheduled for March 27. Many people have donated supplies and neighbors are finding ways to connect through Facetime and Facebook to exchange ideas and best practices. Our work has just begun. We all hope and pray that N95 masks are delivered soon. Until that time, we will continue to help our front line medical providers and continue to fill the requests we receive.

How many masks do you estimate are needed?

There is absolutely no guessing on the numbers we will need. There are so many uses for these masks after the pandemic wanes, including additional protection for the immunocompromised patients. We are not worried about getting too many. I do believe the situation will get worse before it gets better, so we continue to encourage anyone who can help to do so. In public health we have a saying we like to use: “Being prepared just makes sense.”

Any parting words?

Continue to practice social distancing. Keep the faith and I know we will get through this turbulent time together.