June Cauldwell shows the filter between two layers of cloth Friday as she sews a protective mask at her Mount Vernon home.

MOUNT VERNON — June Cauldwell is using her love of sewing these days to create protective masks, a vital and scarce resource for area residents and rescue workers.

Cauldwell is spearheading an effort with more than a dozen area women trying to outfit local people with hand-sewn protective masks during the coronavirus pandemic.

Cauldwell said she has made more than 50 masks, some for the Mount Vernon Rescue department and others for local residents.

“I just want to help people’s health,” she said. “My husband and I are over 65, and we could be in the same position.”

On Monday, the state Center for Disease Control & Prevention announced the number of COVID-19 cases in Maine had risen to 275. And as of Monday evening, the number of coronavirus-related deaths in Maine remained at three.

As the outbreak has progressed, there has been increasing need for medical supplies for those who works at local hospitals and in area rescue departments, and especially for those who treat people with symptoms associated with possible exposure to the coronavirus.

Cauldwell, a former dental hygienist, said her daughter-in-law sent her a social media post about a hospital in Indiana where people were sewing protective masks to donate.

Cauldwell figured a similar shortage could happen in central Maine, so she sewed a dozen masks for the Mount Vernon Rescue department.

Since then, Cauldwell has been featured on the television news, which prompted other local seamstresses to join the effort and sparked requests for the masks from area residents, some with medical conditions that put them at higher risk of serious illness.

“Ever since that clip, I’ve been inundated from masks for all kinds of people,” Cauldwell said. “I’m using up my incredible store of fabric, and I feel like I’m making a difference.”

Pat Rawson, director of Mount Vernon Rescue, said Cauldwell’s masks are “such a huge help” as she anticipates a shortage of supplies in the near future. One of the most high-profile, hard-to-find items are N95 masks, which Rawson said are designed to protect health care providers and rescue workers from “anything that the patient might be carrying.”

She said the donated masks can be used on regular calls, unless the patient shows signs of the coronavirus. Rawson said rescue workers ask a few questions about patients’ symptoms. And based on the patients’ responses, rescuers then decide the personal protective equipment that is needed, such as N95 masks and medical gowns.

“We can’t use (the sewn masks) in place of an N95 mask,” she said. “We will put those (donated) masks to protect the patient from anything we would be carrying. At this point, we need them more than the N95 masks.”

June Cauldwell with two of the  protective masks she sewed Friday at her Mount Vernon home.

Cauldwell said she works for about eight hours a day and so far has made 53 masks. She said it takes her 20 to 30 minutes to create a regular, folding mask, and about 45 minutes to create a three-layer mask with a slot for a filter, which she creates out of vacuum bags.

While her masks are fitted, Cauldwell said, “They’re as tight as I can get them without pulling peoples’ ears off.”

The Sun Journal, based in Lewiston, reported earlier this week that Auburn’s Fabric Warehouse was asking for donations to create fabric masks.  In that report, Robert Long, spokesman for the Maine CDC, said the state is not advising medical providers to use homemade masks.

Further, Long said homemade masks have not gone through the same tests as other masks, and may not provide protection. Other health officials told the Sun Journal the fabric masks could be used to extend the life of N95 masks by being worn over them.

While her homemade masks are not medically tested and approved, Cauldwell said she believes they are suitable for nurses and members of the public.

“If it makes people feel better to have a mask when they do errands, so be it,” she said. “I’m not going to tell them they can’t have a mask. The mask isn’t going to be the thing that saves your life — if you’re not following through with the other recommendations.”

Rawson said she is anticipating a shortage of gowns as well, even though area rescue departments and residents are sharing with one another.

She said she has been contacting area hardware and paint stores trying to get specific coveralls, which are as effective as gowns. She said she has noticed the community coming together during the outbreak.

“I’ve had people this week drop some dust masks, and someone called and said they had four painters coveralls that they’re going to send to me,” Rawson said. “We’re all in this together.”

Mount Vernon resident Ivan Borja, a flight attendant, said he uses masks Cauldwell made while he works. He said they reduce exposure to other people in airplanes’ tight quarters.

“We are very grateful to June and the other ladies that are helping out with the masks,” he said. “I think it’s a great thing and a very good idea.”

Cauldwell said she is only asking for donations for the masks, which she said can fetch $20 each on Etsy, an e-commerce website focused on handmade or vintage items and craft supplies.

She said whatever money she gets goes into an account used to buy materials, including elastic, which she said is getting harder to find because Amazon deliveries have been stalled.

“This to me makes better use of my time than sitting at home and watching TV,” Cauldwell said. “This gives me a purpose every day.”


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