Susan Pundt spent 30 years as a nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital, and when the coronavirus began to spread, she wanted to help.

Retired nurse Susan Pundt wears one of the homemade masks she is sewing for health care workers in her home in Bethel. Photo courtesy of Susan Pundt

But she retired from her nursing career 11 months ago and relocated to Maine. So when she heard about people near her home in Bethel sewing masks for health care workers, she immediately joined the effort.

“I’m kind of isolated here, not really able to be on the front lines at this point in time,” Pundt, 64, said. “But I’ve got to do something.”

Hundreds of Mainers like Pundt have joined online groups to sew face masks in the face of a potential shortage. The homemade masks are not as effective at blocking particles as N95 respirators worn by medical workers. But crafters are circulating patterns on Facebook for masks that can fit over those respirators and prolong their use, and some hospitals in other parts of the country are actively seeking homemade masks along with other supplies.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said homemade cloth and masks can be used as a last resort in the event of a shortage of more effective personal protective equipment, but ideally those handmade products would be used in combination with a more effective face mask.

So far, the Maine CDC has not issued a similar call for crafted masks. Spokesman Robert Long said Tuesday afternoon that the agency is not recommending that health care providers use donated homemade masks at this time.

“There are no guidelines or material recommendations for homemade masks. Masks used in health care are from medical grade materials that are tested and proven adequate to meet the standards and requirements of the industry,” Long wrote in an email. “Fabric available in the community has not undergone such testing. Therefore, there is no way to know which, if any, fabrics will provide actual protection.”

But Long said the masks may be useful in other ways, and the state is looking for ways to connect donors with people who will use them. He credited the crafters for their work.

“This is a wonderful effort and we truly appreciate the generosity and kindness of sewing groups and businesses throughout the state who have offered to make masks,” Long said. “There may be others in the community who could use the masks, so we encourage those who are making masks to explore those possibilities. This is one of many examples of how well Maine people care for each other.”

Amy Lilly, with mask Photo courtesy of Amy Lilly

MaineHealth is the largest health care provider in the state, and its network includes Maine Medical Center in Portland and other community hospitals. Those providers are not accepting unannounced deliveries of supplies, and the organization has launched an online form for people who wish to donate supplies of any kind.

Kristen Peters of Portland said she initially discouraged people from sharing patterns for face masks because she knew they would not protect against the coronavirus. But then she heard about health care providers in Maine and elsewhere that wanted the masks to cover their N95 respirators.

So she and others organized a Facebook group called “Sewing Masks for Maine,” and they shared a pattern that would work for that purpose. They coordinated with a similar group called “A Mask for a Mask” to create forms for participants and providers. Combined, the groups had more than 600 members by Tuesday evening.

In just three days, Peters said, the groups received requests from at least 15 different providers for a total of 2,000 masks. She was aware of the CDC guidance Tuesday, but she said they still plan to fulfill those orders if the providers want them.

Susan Pundt’s snowman wore a handmade mask Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Susan Pundt

“My stomach drops because I don’t want frontline health workers using cloth masks, but I also have full confidence that even if these aren’t used by frontline health workers that there are lots of people who could use them,” Peters, 34, said. “My goal is no matter what, I know what we’re doing is going to be helpful.”

Sarah DeCato is one of the organizers of “A Mask for a Mask.” She previously worked as a public health nurse and saw a friend post a news story about nurses in a Colorado hospital sewing extra masks at their hospital. She organized the Facebook group in part with guidance from the Relief Crafters of America.

“We’re continuing to make masks for those that have requested them,” DeCato, 43, said. “Ideally, they don’t have to be used to protect N95 masks. Ideally people have enough to go around, and they will be donated elsewhere.”

Amy Lilly joined “A Mask for a Mask” after she heard about the sewing project from her church and a neighbor in Bethel. She developed an assembly line system to make masks when she takes breaks from the online work she is doing as a teacher. She is following the group’s instructions to use breathable cotton fabric that can be washed and reused, and her three sons are going to help her cut out pieces.

She said the work has given her hope during the pandemic.

“I’m trying to look at what I can bring rather than what it’s taking away,” Lilly, 44, said.

Jane Chandler with her homemade mask Photo courtesy of Jane Chandler

Jane Chandler, 70, is a retired home health nurse who lives in Bryant Pond in western Maine. She set up a box on her porch so people can drop off their donations at a safe distance. Some of her own masks have been decorated with playful cats.

“It’s a great way to get people involved without exposing ourselves,” she said. “So we can feel connected.”

Pundt made two dozen masks by Tuesday afternoon, and she had another 25 cut out and ready for stitching. She joked that the masks could be Christmas tree decorations if they don’t get used.

“My fervent hope is that they don’t need any of them, that distancing and companies ramping up with the (supplies) we really need will happen,” Pundt said.

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