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Time on your hands? Homemade face masks help those vulnerable to coronavirus

As a shortage of supplies threatens the medical field, a surge of Tampa Bay makers are sewing masks.

Staci Simmons had never sewn a day in her life until three days ago.

But as of Monday, she’s made 30 protective face masks to donate to friends and family who work in the medical field.

The 30-year-old mother of three from Pinellas Park started the project after weeks of hearing upsetting stories about mask shortages. She found a video online with instructions, borrowed a sewing machine from her aunt and taught herself to sew with YouTube videos.

“I failed miserably a couple times,” she said. “But I just kept at it because I want to be able to make a difference. Knowing that I can maybe help somebody sleep a little better at night makes me feel a little bit better and helps me sleep at night, too.”

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidelines to add cloth masks as protective, although they would ideally be used in combination with a paper disposable mask or N95 mask for medical staff. But disposable mask supply is not keeping up to demand.

Simmons is passionate about donating the cloth masks to those who work on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. She started with people she knows who work at medical facilities, but she ran into a situation where the facility didn’t allow the mask. She switched gears and is giving them to other people who need them. Her plan is to keep making them and spreading the word through social media.

Staci Simmons gave Waste Management workers masks that she made. [Courtesy of Staci Simmons]

Joann Fabrics is encouraging the effort by giving the materials to make five masks for free, to be returned for donation to medical facilities. A statement on their website said that this is a “grassroots” effort and they would connect with hospitals near their stores.

It also said that the company is working with larger hospitals and medical facilities to secure materials in short supply in many facilities, including fabric, elastic and clear vinyl.

For now, social media is the best way to connect with people who need donated masks. Medical facilities are still adjusting, so there is no singular source to find information about how to donate, or even if they’ll allow their staff to wear them.

On March 20, a Facebook group called The Mask Project Tampa Bay was created. It has over one thousand members and a mission to create masks to donate to healthcare workers. The group also collects donations of materials and supplies, including hand sanitizer, wipes and gloves to promote hygiene and encourages social distancing.

Their page features request forms for medical staff and facilities and for individuals who are elderly or have with compromised immune systems.

But masks are also important for anyone who still works with the public or simply can’t self-isolate.

St. Petersburg artist Jennifer Kosharek caught onto this trend early. She started selling homemade masks on her Etsy page in early March.

“I’m acutely aware of world news,” she said. “I’ve been watching Asian bloggers make them and found a pattern.”

Keeping an eye on what people in other countries are doing led her to switch materials. Last week, a post from a Taiwanese doctor instructed crafters not to use woven fabrics like cotton and polyester.

Kosharek is using iron-on interfacing fabric and and a fabric called Pul, which is used to make cloth baby diapers.

She has a tutorial on her YouTube channel and holds a baby bunny in part of it, because “we all need some cuteness in our lives right now.”

Kosharek sells her masks for $12 on her Facebook page and offers the pattern for free on her website, kosharekart.art.

She’s making a batch for the staff of Kenwood Organics, who make home deliveries of fresh produce and kombucha.

She had in mind the people who have to be out and about and would feel more comfortable if they wore one.

“Will these masks save somebody or not? I can’t say that. I’m just a street artist trying to do something.”

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